It's hard to believe that Broken Glass Park is Alina Bronsky's first novel. It's a searing, raw portrait of a young woman, teenage Sascha Naimann, whose mother was murdered by her stepfather, Vadim, now in prison. Sascha lives with her younger siblings Anton and Alissa. Anton, nine years old, is deeply troubled and traumatized; Alissa, the baby of the family, bears her own scars but it's seventeen year old Sascha who feels responsible not only for her siblings but for exacting revenge on Vadim. Together, the three are cared for by Maria, Vadim's cousin, a sweet but ineffectual woman with the thankless job of holding this fractured family together.
Bronsky begins the novel with Sascha's fantasies of killing Vadim, and follows her through her stressful day to day life. A poor Russian immigrant in Germany, Sascha tries to navigate school, social life and family while grieving for her mother and bearing the stigma and shame that come with surviving a family tragedy. She befriends Volker, an older man who treats her with otherworldly tenderness and teaches her that not all men are bad, and has a tentative romance with his son Felix, another outcast. Maria struggles to adjust to life in Germany and befriends her neighbor Oleg; they share an understated romance that tells another side of the immigrant story.
What impressed me the most about Broken Glass Park is Bronsky's psychological accuracy. She gets these damaged people just right. Sascha's grief is transformed into anger towards her mother, for being vulnerable to Vadim, and her attraction to Volker makes sense in the context of her search for a supportive and caring father figure. Sascha's hostility towards Maria and Oleg's relationship fits with the disgust she feels towards romantic love, having seen where it got her mother. Having been immersed in something so toxic, she can't process anything else. And Sascha's fantasies about killing Vadim are just an adolescent's way of redeeming her guilt over her mother's death. But hardest for her to process is her ambivalence towards Vadim:
I reach my hand out and open the leather briefcase...At the bottom are photos. Four photos. A big print. A red-headed woman...I turn the photo over and read the description...My wife Marina in her theater. Another big one. A young blond boy...On the back: My son Anton's first day of school. A smaller photo. A smiling baby...The back: My daughter Alissa tries solid food. An even smaller photo. A dark-haired girl on a bench with her feet pulled up on the bench...It looks very familiar to me, but I can't seem to place it...I turn over the photo and need a long time to read what it says. Despite the fact that there's just one word: Sascha.Even the people you hate can break your heart.
It's these moments of sadness and shame that make it so easy for the reader to love Sascha, brittleness and anger and sharp edges and all. She's not really mean, or violent, or hopeless; she's a bright girl who wants to do right by herself and those she loves, but she has a lot on her plate, and while the ending is optimistic and hopeful, it's going to take her a while to work it all out.
Broken Glass Park is a beautiful book about the consequences and impact of family violence on children. It's not always an easy read but I've yet to read anything that speaks so honestly and movingly about the damage inflicted on children and families. I'd recommend it to readers of literary fiction and coming of age stories but you can probably already tell that this isn't a typical coming of age story; most children don't have such a heavy cross to bear. In the end she learns that redemption won't be so easy or so simple, but still possible, and that's the message of hope with which Bronsky leaves us.
Click here for my interview with Alina Bronsky.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.