Flotsam, by Meike Ziervogel, tells the story of a mother and her daughter, both of whose lives have been shaped by loneliness and loss. They live in a remote cottage close to mud flats on the German North Sea coast where dykes enable human habitation. The mother, Anna, is an artist processing grief by collecting debris washed up by each tide. Her daughter, Trine, plays on a shipwreck on the shore but is reaching an age when such games must be left behind.
The story opens in the early 1950s with an accident. Trine is climbing down from the broken and stranded ship to reach the body of her brother, Carl. He has just fallen from the rope ladder and she knows that he is dead but is afraid of the fuss her mother will make when she finds out. Trine remembers the wailing and crockery throwing that followed her father’s death and burial. She wishes to give Carl a pirate’s send-off, burning his body to ensure he cannot wake up in a box underground.
Trine has recently befriended two of the popular girls at her school and does not wish to lose this unexpected chance to fit in socially. Unlike them, Trine’s body has yet to form the curves that the boys who hang around with them admire. When one of the boys appears to notice her, Trine determines to outmanoeuvre the competition, whatever that may take.
The second half of the book focuses on Anna. She rescues a drowning man from the waves, taking him home to nurse him better despite the stones she found in his pockets. Anna rarely sees strangers. She has grown used to a life of solitude, endured since she moved to the coast at the outbreak of the war. Anna’s husband, Otto, owned the cottage and moved her there from Berlin to keep her and their young son safe from aerial bombardment. Otto was supportive of Anna’s art but did not offer the passion and excitement she had expected when they married.
As the war progresses, Anna seeks her own adventures. Meanwhile, her son grows, eager to fight for his country alongside the peers who are now regarded as heroes, for the victory they have been taught is assured.
The writing has a dark and haunting quality yet there is much beauty in its concise construction. The story ebbs and flows with the ghosts of the past and the effects of the isolated location. Both Trine and Anna show a resolve that can be unsettling, beguiling – perhaps because young women are not expected to behave as they do.
An astute and arresting tale that brought to mind the disturbance caused on reading Wyl Menmuir’s The Many. The denouement is poignant yet fitting, an affecting reaction to untold grief.
“She used to wonder what kind of art she might have been able to make if grief hadn’t cornered her, deprived her of images, of thoughts, of language, of visions. And all that she had left to do was to roam the mudflats, collecting flotsam and jetsam. Waiting.”
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.