The raw and captivating opening scene of Stephanie de Velasco’s debut novel, Tigermilk, sets the tone for this Berlin story, depicting the lives of two fourteen-year old girls who are teetering precariously, dramatically and prematurely on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Jameelah and Nini are best friends, and the long, hot summer holidays have just begun. In the opening lines, Nini, recalls a snapshot from her childhood: of standing alongside the pram which held her younger sister Jessi as her mother chatted with the neighbour, and seeing a clump of still-steaming chewing gum on the snowy ground. She remembers how she discretely speared it with her Barbie’s outstretched hand, picking it up and pushing it into her mouth. Then she tells the reader why she is recounting this story. Firstly, because if you have a childhood memory it means that you are no longer a child, and secondly, because she was reminded of the gum’s taste earlier that day by a strawberry-flavoured condom.
This scene perfectly encapsulates the crashing together of two worlds: childlike innocence and the grittier nature of adulthood. Bold and fiercely independent, the two girls are part of both. Neither has an easy family life; Nini’s mother spends the majority of her time sleeping on the couch, while Jameelah is an Iraqi refugee whose father and brother were killed in the war. Now she and her mother face deportation after receiving a letter from the German authorities. The girls pledge to live life to the full this summer; months which they hope will include losing their virginities to the boys they like. In the final week of school before the holidays, they meet in the toilets each afternoon to mix up their signature concoction: Tigermilk. This is a blend of milk, maracuja juice and brandy, always drunk in a Müller milk container to fool unsuspecting adults. Afterwards, they head off to Berlin’s Tiergarten, a sprawling inner-city parkland, then on to the Ku’damm, a stretch of fast-food joints and sex shops where local prostitutes lure their customers. The girls, too, are there to pick up men, a new pastime whereby they can earn some extra cash fooling around and ‘practice’ for having sex for the first time.
Their time outside school overlaps with the worlds of other friends and neighbours – Jasna, Amir and Tarik, sibling Bosnian refugees who live in the same housing development; Dragan, Jasna’s Serbian boyfriend (a cross-cultural relationship which enrages Jasna’s brother Tarik), Anna-Lena, a schoolmate who the girls dislike; and Lukas and Nico, the boys they fancy. As well as drifting through the Tiergarten, they also go to the local swimming pool and laze around talking and smoking. The scenes are pungent with the scent of sun lotion, French fries and raging hormones.
As part of Jameelah’s mission to seduce Lukas, they join a fundraising campaign for street children in Guatemala. The organiser, noticing the Iraqi girl’s dark features, poses intrigued questions about her heritage. She responds awkwardly, longing to be German and nothing else.
In Guatemala everything is greener than here, greener and juicier, says Jameelah, but darker and sadder too. She shakes the glass jar wildly as she speaks, as if it were some tribal percussion instrument.
The novel is full of scenes which evoke the dramatic experience of being a teenager, a time of crushes and first lust, of living in the moment. It also depicts the all-encompassing dread, all the more dramatic at a young age, of a dark threat intruding into what should be carefree days. One night, Nini and Jameelah go to the nearby playground at midnight so they can cast a love spell together, and end up witnessing an honour killing. The victim is Jasna. Their summer crumbles around them, and the repercussions of the murder drive a wedge between the two girls, making their different backgrounds more obvious than ever before.
I found the language and content of Tigermilk to be perfectly suited to one another. The author picks out the most astonishing details of the characters’ lives, thoughts and surroundings and presents a fresh, surprising view of even the most familiar aspects of life. Each scene segues breathlessly into the next, creating a sense of urgency, but also of endless summer days.
Alongside the beauty of the language, the novel is also compelling for its subject matter and subtle handling of some very complex themes. Asylum, immigration, racial tensions, honour killings, teenage pregnancy and underage sex are all reflected upon, but at no point seem overworked. There are, after all, many young people who grow up amidst the most difficult and challenging of circumstances, yet they are still linked by the core emotions all teenagers go through. And while a condensed version of the plot may present the novel as being too heavy-going, this is not the case. It is a witty, poetic and gripping coming of age story, one that will remind readers of the intense, relentless longing of their own teenage years. Even though the events depicted are not those of your run-of-the-mill summer vacation, it still summons up the memories of being that age.
Tigermilch has been translated into English by Tim Mohr for Head of Zeus, and he’s done a stellar job. I first read the German original in the spring of last year, then re-read it just as eagerly during my summer in Berlin, then read the translation out here in Brazil recently. It was, and remains, one of my best reads of recent years, and I can’t recommend it more highly.