Daughters by Lucy Fricke

Translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe

Reviewed by Eleanor Updegraff

In the Translator’s Note at the end of Daughters, Sinéad Crowe writes of her concern about successfully translating the humour in Lucy Fricke’s sharp-witted novel from German into English. Often so dependent on context, language and culture, humour is notoriously challenging to translate, but it is to the credit of both Crowe and her publisher, new imprint V&Q Books, that they were willing to give it a try. The risk more than paid off – in English too, Daughters is imbued with a biting, black sense of comedy that is guaranteed to make this novel an instant hit with readers and fulfils one of V&Q Books’ many aims: to disprove the sadly often held assumption that German literature isn’t funny.

Daughters, the fourth novel by Hamburg-born novelist Lucy Fricke, is a road-trip chronicle with a difference. Beginning in Berlin, it takes in much of Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Greece as Betty and Martha, best friends either side of forty, set out on an absurd journey to deliver Martha’s decrepit father Kurt to a Swiss euthanasia clinic. Already ridiculous, the journey soon tips over into farcical as Kurt insists on an unexpected detour and Betty herself heads off in pursuit of one of her mother’s ex-partners: ‘the man I loved like a father [. . .] the father I loved like a man.’ This portion of the journey takes her to a quiet Greek island populated by disillusioned locals and permanently drunk Swedes, which ultimately provides the setting for the novel’s denouement and more than a few entertaining narrative twists along the way.

Wherever she takes her characters – and, by extension, readers – Lucy Fricke is adept at creating a tangible sense of atmosphere, a skill that Crowe has mirrored admirably with her choice of English words. Each setting is characterised by a few deftly chosen details, as inconsequential as the appearance of furniture in a bar; words that might not seem to hold much weight but convey vividly the tired seediness of the streets around the port of Genoa, the air of utter hopelessness pervading a small town in central Italy, the sleepiness that holds the island of Lofkes in its grasp before it suddenly explodes into riotous life on the occasion of a religious festival. Fricke’s depiction of these places is definitely not textbook, but it rings undeniably true, betraying an incredibly keen eye for observing life in all its unglamorous particulars. Switzerland, Italy and Greece are rhapsodised about so often, including in descriptions of road trips taken through them, that it is incredibly refreshing to come across a portrait that prefers – with no small amount of glee – to focus on the sordid.

This is, of course, all part of the particular style of humour that characterises Daughters, and which comes to bear most strongly in the voice of our narrator, Betty. Dependent on anti-depressants and traumatised by a childhood under the thumb of an unreliable, unbalanced mother and her series of boyfriends (who, it is hinted, regularly abused both mother and daughter) Betty is an acerbic, jaded character whose forthright manner is instantly appealing. Upfront about her own failings and humorous when it comes to her misspent youth, attitude to middle age and tendency to numb her feelings with drink, she is a strong female voice that never comes across as anything but honest. When writing a novel with these feminist touches it would be all too easy to overegg the pudding – a quick slip that can be disastrous for the characters’ overall credibility – but Fricke has succeeded with what reads like ease, delivering an authoritative yet brittle heroine and an equally credible, differently damaged sidekick. The problems faced by Betty and Martha and the ways in which they choose to deal (or not deal) with them will no doubt be recognisable to many a reader.

Caustic wit aside, Daughters is a deeply philosophical novel that tackles universal themes such as ageing, bereavement, child–parent relationships, infertility and suppressed trauma. Both Betty and Martha have problematic relationships with their fathers (or, in Betty’s case, father figure) that are probed in a sometimes painful, often touching way. Behind its superficial brashness, the novel carries an important message about learning to communicate before it’s too late, about facing up to the challenges life throws at us and turning a critical eye on the way in which we judge other people. Though carried along by a relentless momentum – pace is another aspect of the narrative skilfully captured by Crowe’s translation – the story often allows pause for thought, brief sentences that bring us up sharp and make us think about what lies beneath. As is so often the case with black comedy, the message is more serious and significant than you might think.

As much as it is about individual relationships, Daughters is also an ode of sorts to Europe. Phenomena such as the German autobahn, Swiss order, Italian theatrics and Greek nonchalance, all of which have rightly or wrongly become cultural stereotypes, are blatantly played to even as the events of the narrative undermine them. This is a ground-level view of Europe, warts and all, composed by Fricke with a tongue-in-cheek attitude but also, I sensed, a great deal of love. The humanity at the core of the novel serves as a reminder that we are all of us more similar than we might like to believe, no matter how we draw our borders or view the people who live on the other side of them.

Hugely atmospheric, deeply thoughtful and delivered with a sharpness of wit conducive to page turning, Daughters is a bold, spirited novel that cements V&Q Books as pioneers of outstanding German literature. In her sensitive, open-minded translation, Sinéad Crowe has more than done justice to Fricke’s playful sense of humour, transporting both style and substance in an extremely convincing manner. Compelling evidence that German literature can be – and indeed often is – extremely funny, Daughters smashes several cultural stereotypes in a single blow and should leave readers of contemporary European fiction avidly hoping for more from the newly established dream team of V&Q, Fricke and Crowe.

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Eleanor is a freelance writer, translator and proofreader/copy-editor, living in Austria. She blogs at The Monthly Booking.

Lucy Fricke, Daughters (V&Q Books, 2020). 978-3863912567, 203pp., flapped paperback.

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