The Pollen Room was written by the Swiss writer Zoë Jenny when she was 23-years-old and became an international bestseller, translated into more than 27 languages and invitations to speak to readership audiences in Japan, China and the US among others.
It is interesting to write about this story after having just read Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, this novella yet another version of what Morrison demonstrates.
It is the memory of childhood without maternal love and its after-effect. It is not dramatic, nor a traditional story, it is a narrative that sets the reader up to feel something of the isolation and vulnerability of the protagonist and follow her forward as she tries to plug the gap, looking for that nourishment as if it were something tangible she could use to plug the abyss it created by its absence.
Jo stayed with her father when her mother left. There is no explanation, just significant and detailed memories of insignificant events, noises that communicate the beginning of her father’s daily routine, signals that provoke anxiety, nameless visitors, the one he married Elaine, who eventually left too.
‘At night I would fall into a restless slumber. Fractured dreams floated past my sleeping eyes like scraps of paper in the raging torrent of a river. Then I would hear a clatter and find myself wide awake. I looked at the spiderwebs on the ceiling and knew that my father was in the kitchen…
There came a series of muffled rustling noises and a moment of quiet. My breath quickened. A lump rose in my throat and swelled to enormous proportions as I watched my father put on his leather jacket and pull the door quietly closed behind him.’
After initial weekly visits, her mother soon moves on to a new life and there is no contact for 12 years. Eventually Jo goes in search of her, however being reaquainted doesn’t bring her companionship or stability, it brings responsibility, creates concern, disquiet. She seeks solace in the company of others, those who appear to live in the semblance of a home, acquaintances short-lived, consequences that won’t leave her.
The prose is spare, observant, it infiltrates your mood and makes the reader suffer alongside the protagonist.
Brilliantly conceived, it is not a book to read if you are feeling sad or vulnerable. There is dialogue, interaction, and a great swathe of stream-of-conscious thought as Jo observes each encounter and responds in her inward-looking, sensitive way to it all.
Unfortunately I read this without realising that and so didn’t appreciate it’s best qualities as much as I might have done, had I read it at another time. I read it at a time of being acutely aware of the fragility and vulnerability of youth and couldn’t see past the neglect and narcissism of those around Jo and spent the entire book worrying that something even more terrible was going to happen to her and just felt great relief when it was all over and we were safe.
I was recommended this title by Vishy and I would highly recommend reading his review, which celebrates the beauty and artistic merit of the novella, showing us just how great it can be, when we choose the right time to read it. It was one of his favourite reads of 2015.
Follow the hashtag #GermanLitMonth on twitter, or click on the links to see what they’ve been reading, and what great works in translation there are out there for us!