1000 Coils of Fear by Olivia Wenzel review – an energetic debut

At the midpoint of Olivia Wenzel’s zesty debut, the unnamed German-Angolan narrator is labouring through an almighty hangover. While “everything’s spinning and I puke bile onto my toes”, she mournfully “wishes I had a close-fitting wooden helmet to keep my thoughts together, there is no order anywhere”.

Disorder informs the shape and spirit of Wenzel’s unusual novel, which seeks to capture the vertiginous, multifaceted experience of living in contemporary Germany as a queer woman of colour. It is a modishly fragmented work, and largely consists of a female speaker engaging in heated, often seemingly directionless self-interrogation. The protagonist will ask herself such questions as “Do I think of myself as a good friend? (Sometimes. But also an ungrateful one)”, or wonder “Why am I still speaking? (Because you can’t do anything else)”.

Perhaps it’s better to think of the novel’s structure as representing a rapid-fire, nonlinear conversation between dissonant elements of a troubled self, presented on the page as a kind of duologue – reflecting Wenzel’s previous work as a playwright. Sometimes the harshness of the interrogation calls to mind a Homeland Security official at a US airport. At other times, the vehement style of inquiry makes us think of the Stasi, putting the screws on dissidents. When the probing is more compassionate, it suggests a therapist. All three of these figures appear, in different guises, in this allusive and associative text.

The subjects that Wenzel’s narrator works through range far and wide, from hypnotherapy to hip-hop. On the personal level, she keeps circling back to varied instances of racism in her native Germany and in the US. As in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, there is heartrending shame when recalling that, as a child, she wanted nothing more than “a wondrous ointment that … would make [her] white overnight”.

The narrator’s fractured family is another theme around which the stream of consciousness repeatedly eddies. Her Angolan father was largely absent during her childhood and her mother, once a punk in the GDR, is a prickly figure with whom she struggles to sustain intimacy. Underscoring all this is the fact that the narrator’s twin brother killed himself by jumping in front of a train. Thus a recurring motif by which the narrator waits on a train platform is weighted with potential meaning – though it loses this power when Wenzel shifts gear and distractingly imbues the contents of a vending machine with symbolic significance.

Evidently, there is an awful lot going on here. The narrator provocatively confesses that she’s “not good at sticking to one topic”. This profusion is the text’s central problem. Wenzel’s nuanced thoughts about injustice, marginalisation and the checking of privilege are timely and important, and the dashes of surreal, undercutting humour – at one point the narrator leads us to believe that she is on the precipice of epiphanic understanding, but instead simply burps quietly – are refreshing. But there is so much clutter in terms of ideas and feelings that it’s hard to know what we as readers should care about. Yes, the disjointed form may accurately represent a hyperactive, anxious mind, or the terror of someone subject to white and male gazes, or the layeredness of intersectional existence. But the skittishness – musing on the lives of Fijian call centre workers one minute, comparing sperm penetrating an egg to a “gang bang” the next – is both confusing and exhausting. I found myself wishing for more shaping and selection of this abundant material.

In its final third, however, the novel hits its stride. Our now pregnant narrator travels to Vietnam in search of reconciliation with her ex-girlfriend. Here, she patiently observes her surroundings and Priscilla Layne’s elegant translation emphasises the quietude: “A fisherman walks along the ocean in the darkness. His headlamp illuminates the nets lying in the wet sand, revealed by the ocean which is at low tide. He crouches down, checks the content of the nets. Even though it’s night and dark out, it smells like fire.” Along with these coolly controlled, atmospheric descriptions, this section of the novel is grounded by the narrator coming to terms with imminent motherhood. This turning away from tired solipsism, a complex but concerted redirecting of care towards something beyond herself, began the process of more meaningfully drawing me into the narrative.

As the novel comes to its close, the non sequiturs, showy leaping between topics and self-conscious experimentalism calm down a little. Notably, there’s a moment where the narrator has a fall at Saigon airport and her mind immediately turns “with radical clarity” to the wellbeing of the child that she hopes she will love “with a kind of love she reserved only for her brother”. But for me this more cohesive, considered, emotive approach was too little, too late.

1000 Coils of Fear by Olivia Wenzel, translated by Priscilla Layne, is published by Dialogue (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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