Deniz Ohde’s debut novel Streulicht (which translates to Scattered Light in English) was published in August 2020. The novel is currently on the shortlist for the German Book Prize. Next to Olivia Wenzel’s novel 1000 Serpentinen Angst, which didn’t make it on the shortlist, Streulicht is my favorite of all nominees. The jury will announce the winner in October.
Streulicht is set in a nameless German suburb, in a charmless working-class neighbourhood. The novel gives a straightforward rendition of the experiences of a young woman in the German education system. It quickly becomes clear that family background plays a central role in determining how (un)successful one is in pursuing one’s goals. The narrator’s father has been slaving away in a factory his entire life. Her mother emigrated from Turkey and works as a cleaner. The father also turns out to be an alcoholic who, drunk, hits objects in the apartment, but “at least” – as the mother puts it – never hit his wife and child. He is also a hoarder. His wife cannot persuade him to throw anything away. She submits to him, cleans up after him, and finally loses her strength.
The daughter is caught between them. She is the quiet outsider who observes everything closely. She cannot hope for support from her parents. Teachers, friends and her parents underestimate her and tell her so to her face – mostly benevolently, of course: for her own good. So they say. Repeatedly she encounters “othering” – subtle and hurtful, even from her supposed best friend – based on her name and appearance.
Despite barriers of race and class, the protagonist manages to escape her home town by leaving for university. But the novel suggests that it won’t get any easier there: The protagonist lacks what might be called institutional know-how, as well as any kind of supportive encouragement to set goals for herself. Thus, on the one hand, the university represents upward mobility, but on the other hand, it does not promise a better future.
I have rarely read a book that looks at the topic of social background in such an impressive and intersectional way. Streulicht is an excellent book that immediately grabbed me as a reader. I would recommend it to everyone, and especially to teachers.