Nachtbeeren (Nightberries) by Elina Penner
Berlin. Aufbau. 2022. 179 pages.
This enchanting fiction debut centers around Nelli, a woman who emigrated in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union as a child and was raised by her grandmother in a small German town. The family kept their strict Mennonite religion and their own mother tongue: Plautdietsch. Married to Kornelius, she lives a very traditional lifestyle: him as the breadwinner and her looking after the home and their son, Jakub. The couple regularly attend the Mennonite church, and she sees her (much) older brothers each weekend.
Nelli struggles to cope after her grandma dies, and to make matters worse, her husband announces he is leaving her for another woman. The next day she has no recollection of the night before. When her son and brothers discover what has happened to Kornelius (he is chopped up in freezer bags), they all rally to protect Nelli, even Eugen. Eugen is her favorite brother, but he lives in another city to hide his homosexuality from his Mennonite family.
Told alternately from the perspectives of Nelli, Eugen, and Jakub, Elina Penner gives each character a unique voice infused to varying degrees with Plautdietsch, a Germanic language. As a study of grief in its various forms, we become acquainted with the protagonists; they gradually reveal the stress and strain upon Nelli as she tries to live up to the expectations of her family and religion. We also discover the ice-cold fate of Kornelius, whom Nelli’s family regarded as a Russian-German rather than as one of their own.
Penner, a Mennonite German herself, has created unique characters who find themselves in extraordinary and absurd situations. In precise but evocative language, she finely balances tragedy against comedy. Her beautifully clear and hypnotic prose draws readers into her mesmerizing tale set among a German minority that is returning “home” after generations of exile. Nachtbeeren delves into the question, What do home and community really mean? The suspense cleverly cloaked in dark humor will leave you wanting to read more by Elina Penner.
Durham, United Kingdom