Next Door by Christine Belkao: Two women quietly fight for their happiness in life

“Next door” by Kristen Belkao
Two women quietly fighting for their happiness in life

Written by Mark Dempville

The search for happiness drives people forward, and it can also drive them to despair. In “Next Door,” Kristen Belkao looks deep inside two women while simultaneously describing the secrets of where they live. I succeeded in writing a sensitive novel.

It is the eternal contrast between city and country. Anyone who grows up where the gateway to the world is supposed to be a rust-covered bus stop, escape to where life rages on ASAP. On the other hand, the city dwellers, spoiled by consumption, are weary after years of kneeling in the subway and finally immersed in the romance of the woods and meadows, the dream of owning their own home and peace and quiet. Both are bewildering utopias that are ultimately just a child’s primitive human endeavour: the desire for contentment.

Kristen Belkao’s debut novel, The Happy Ones, won several awards.

(Photo: Imago / Viadata)

Julia, one of the two protagonists from Kristen Belkaw’s novel “Next Door”, also has this desire. The woman in her late thirties and her husband left their old lives in Hamburg and fled to a quiet town on the Kiel Canal. You should actually be three heroes, because the village plays its main role. The inhabitants of the idyllic North only keep what it promises at first sight. Upon closer examination, the facade crumbles, rather than the sense of hopeful community, Julia quickly realizes that even the province is closest to him.

Because with air and love, that’s one of those things. Although they have their own shop, there are problems with integrating into village life. Also because Julia deals with her own problems: the right child is still missing in the cottage she just moved into. But it won’t work, and the circadian clock ticks – at least perceptibly – louder and louder. As a result, a relationship with husband Chris, a biologist, whose ambitions lie more in environmental protection than family happiness, suffers – especially when, despite expensive medical treatment, he is increasingly distant.

The sadness is in the details

Astrid, the second main character in “Next Door”, never wanted to go too far. She grew up in the village and still lives there in her early sixties. What she misses is her friendship with her neighbor Marley, who has grown more and more about her. At the same time, Astrid enjoys a loving and trusting marriage with her somewhat quirky husband Andreas. At the beginning of the novel, the doctor must through his own practice realize that things can look different. She is called to the body of a woman lying in the bathtub for hours – the husband claims he did not notice.

“It’s the little things, it’s always the little things that make the grief, you think. Neglect among adults is not a crime. Negligence, there is 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 with work. The two paths overlap, but without consciously meeting. When a family from the village seems to disappear at their head, Astrid and Julia take care of her – the only ones. And other mysterious things happen in what is supposed to be northern Germany. Astrid suddenly receives anonymous threatening messages, and little by little the security of the house is lost. Julia meets an unknown boy and the meeting will not let her go.

The calm with which Bilkau tells her story in short, deceptively simple sentences. The deeper you go, the more vulnerable and insecure their characters become. At some point, the reader is literally forced to reflect himself in it. How well do I know my neighbor? Can I only trust my loved ones or do I want to? You inevitably ask yourself these questions. However, Next Door not only draws fine psychological lines, the book is openly critical of the zeitgeist in some places. When collectivism is required, the individual must fight alone, whether it is to deal with his own concerns, to prevent the village from dying, or simply to save the world.

The burden of the world in one book

Bilkau’s attempt to reconcile the problems of modernity with postmodernism also reveals the weakness of the novel. In some places, the material seems overburdened, and topics such as nature conservation, right-wing populism or domestic violence have their rightful place, but there is not enough room to expand on them appropriately. Much remains implied or not made explicit. But this is more than justified, because the Hamburg-based writer articulates the desires, fears, and needs of her protagonists in such a specific way that even the most desperate of the works that follow can be understood.

“Everything here is driven by a longing, for a world without breaks. But no one here will satisfy his longing, on the contrary, their longings are like a commodity, to be taken, transferred and made use of, their longings are like a raw material from which others live, but here they will find nothing that lasts.”

Not only does Belkao describe social media in this way, but it is also a tale about the emotional world of the people of this anonymous village not far from the Kiel Canal. The fact that Astrid and Julia were not broken by their longing is due to the people around them. The really important people, who are there when it matters most. In ‘Next Door’, both women follow in close to 300 pages and at the end you get to experience how they regain their optimism, their happiness in life and thus their satisfaction.

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