"Next door" by Kristine Bilkau: Two women quietly fight for their happiness in life

The search for happiness drives people on, and it can also drive them to despair.

"Next door" by Kristine Bilkau: Two women quietly fight for their happiness in life

The search for happiness drives people on, and it can also drive them to despair. In "Next Door" Kristine Bilkau looks deep inside two women and at the same time describes the secrets of the place in which they live. She has succeeded in writing a sensitive novel.

It is the eternal contradiction between city and country. Anyone who grows up where the gateway to the world is supposed to be a rust-covered bus stop flees to where life rages as soon as possible. City dwellers spoiled by consumption, on the other hand, are worn down after years of elbowing in the subway and are finally overwhelmed by the romance of woods and meadows, the dream of their own home and peace and quiet. Both are mystified ideal images that are ultimately only the child of a primeval human endeavor: the desire for contentment.

Julia, one of the two protagonists from Kristine Bilkau's novel "Next Door", also has this wish. The woman in her late thirties and her husband left their old life in Hamburg and fled to a sleepy town on the Kiel Canal. It should actually be three protagonists, because the village plays its own leading role. The Nordic idyll only keeps what it promises at first glance. On closer inspection, the facade crumbles, instead of the hoped-for sense of community, Julia quickly realizes that even a provincial is closest to himself.

Because with air and love, that's one of those things. Despite having their own shop, integration into village life is difficult. Also because Julia is dragging her own problems around: the right child is still missing for the country house that she has just moved into. But it just won't work, and the ticking of the biological clock is - at least felt - louder and louder. The relationship with husband Chris, a biologist, suffers as a result, whose ambitions lie more in environmental protection than in family happiness - especially when, despite expensive medical treatment, it is becoming increasingly remote.

Astrid, the second main character of "Next Door", never wanted to go far away. She grew up in the village and still lives there in her early sixties. What she misses is the friendship with her neighbor Marli, who has grown further and further away from her. At the same time, Astrid has a loving and trusting marriage with her husband, the slightly quirky Andreas. Right at the beginning of the novel, the doctor with her own practice has to realize that things can look different. She is called to the corpse of a woman who lay in the bathtub for hours - the husband claims not to have noticed.

"It's the little things, it's almost always the little things that make the sad, she thinks. Carelessness between adults is not a crime. Carelessness, there's no box for that on the death certificate."

Julia and Astrid share the fate of the modern woman, who is expected to combine private life and work. The paths of the two overlap, but without them consciously meeting. When a family from the village seems to disappear head over heels, Astrid and Julia take care of it - they are the only ones. And other mysterious things happen in the supposed idyll of Northern Germany. Astrid suddenly receives anonymous threatening letters, and the security at home is gradually losing substance. Julia meets an unknown boy and the encounter won't let her go.

The calm with which Bilkau tells her story in simple but concise sentences is deceptive. The deeper you delve, the more vulnerable and insecure their characters become. At some point, the reader is literally forced to mirror themselves in them. How well do I know my neighbor? Can or do I only want to trust my loved ones? You inevitably ask yourself these questions. However, "Next Door" not only draws fine, psychological lines, the book openly criticizes the zeitgeist in some places. Where collectivism is required, the individual must fight alone, whether it is to deal with his private worries, to stop the village from dying, or simply to save the world.

Bilkau's attempt to reconcile the modern and postmodern problems of our time also reveals the weakness of the novel. In some places, the material seems overloaded, topics such as nature conservation, right-wing populism or domestic violence are given their legitimate place, but there is not enough space to expand them appropriately. Much remains implied or is not clarified. But that is more than excusable, because the Hamburg-based writer illustrates the wishes, worries and needs of her protagonists in such a pointed way that even the most desperate actions that follow can be understood.

"Everything here is driven by longings, for a world without breaks. But nobody here will fulfill their longings, on the contrary, their longings are like a commodity, they are taken, passed on and utilised, their longings are like a raw material from which others live, but she, she will find nothing here that will last."

This is how Bilkau not only describes the social media, it is also a parable about the emotional world of the residents of this nameless village not far from the Kiel Canal. The fact that Astrid and Julia are not broken by their longings is due to the people around them. People who really matter, who are there when it matters most. In "Next Door" you follow both women over almost 300 pages and at the end you can experience how they regain their optimism, their happiness in life and thus their contentment.


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