Book Review - 1000 Coils of Fear

The experimental form of Olivia Wenzel’s bold exploration of Black identity in Germany may distance some readers. She opens with a surreal image: “My heart is a snack machine made of tin.” The unnamed narrator then moves through a series of questions and answers. Her feelings of alienation are swiftly established. In a theatre with her friend-lover, Kim, they discover they’re the only non-white people in a room of a thousand. She resents being subjected to the white gaze and yearns to be invisible. As a kid, she wanted a cream to lighten her skin. At night she dreams that she is white.

Throughout, the narrator communes with herself, although there are several competing voices. They are by turn friendly, helpful, insistent, interrogative. This imaginative device allows Wenzel to track back and forth between her protagonist’s memories, time and place, as an enthralling story unfolds. We discover her white mother was a punk in the former East Germany. After her Angolan father returned home, her pregnant mother had hoped to follow him, but her emigration permit was revoked abruptly.

When the narrator is 19 her twin brother commits suicide. The stream of consciousness she uses to describe his death is heartbreaking. Now in her 30s, the trauma continues to haunt her. She finds it hard to sleep and seeks help from various therapists for an anxiety that feels like “a permanent case of emergency”.

She travels to New York in 2016 during the presidential election. The officials’ interrogation at the airport is blended cleverly into her ceaseless questioning of herself. In the US she finds comfort within the Black community, although she recognises that their closeness is born out of necessity after slavery.

Wenzel is better known as a playwright, and 1000 Coils of Fear, her stunning debut novel, is translated superbly by Priscilla Layne. It’s a powerful evocation of a life marked by racism; one step away from the “hatred that refugees face permanently”. There’s much to admire in her incisiveness, originality and compassion.