Friday, December 5, 2014

Review: JUST CALL ME SUPERHERO, by Alina Bronsky

Just Call Me Superhero, by Alina Bronsky. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the German.

Alina Bronsky's latest novel is probably the hardest for me to get into, but was very rewarding once I did. Set in modern day Germany, she tells the story of Marek, a teenager whose face was mutilated after he was attacked by a rottweiler. Nowadays he's bitter, a virtual shut-in who wears dark glasses and avoids others until his mother makes him go to a support group for disabled people. Things take a while to improve. He's cynical and uninterested in the others, whose issues range from terminal illness to physical disability to mental illness.

Her earlier books, Broken Glass Park and The Hottest Dishes of the Tatar Cuisine, were favorites of mine that tackled family dysfunction in ways that were painful and real. Her latest takes a slightly different subject and works it over with the same level of psychological insight and literary craft.

The book was hard for me because I can relate to some of Marek's issues. When I was a teen I was in a car accident that left me with a permanent disfigurement; but luckily it's one that I can hide most of the time and I've always said I feel for people with facial disfigurements because I can just put on long pants and that's that. When it's your face, there's nowhere to hide, and the self-conscious feeling I have at the beach or the gym is the way some folks feel all the time.  So it's tough, and you've got to learn to be very strong to muscle through it.

But when you're young (and even when you're older) toughness can mean anger and Marek is still angry, at himself, at the accident that changed his life, at others whose glances and expressions remind him that he's different, even if it's only his appearance that's different. He's infatuated with Janne, a beautiful wheelchair bound young woman in his group, competing for her attention with other young men and behaving like the immature kid he is. When the group goes on a trip together things come to a head and he alienates some members of the group. At the same time though he gets word that his estranged father has died, and what happens next surprises everyone, Marek especially.

I ended up loving this book with its tough-necked characters and the insights they gain into each others' lives. The tone of the book changes in the final third and this was where it all came together for me as Marek learns things that challenge his assumptions about everything, himself most particularly. It's a must-read for Bronsky's fans and also provides a lively portrait of modern German life at that same time its themes of redemption and growth are universal. Sometimes, the person in whose eyes you most need to be redeemed are your own, and learning that is the hardest thing of all.

This is my 13th book for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed a galley copy of this book from the bookstore where I used to work.