Higher Ground by Anke Stelling

It took me a month to read Anke Stelling’s Higher Ground. A month, not because I wasn’t enjoying Stelling’s writing, but because I was in the depths of a reading rut. So, I didn’t give this book the attention and focus it deserved. And, had I read it in my usual week, I’m quite certain that the key themes – class and creativity – would have made a much stronger impression.

The story focuses on Resi, a writer in her mid-forties, married to Sven, a painter. They live in an apartment building in Berlin, where their lease is controlled by some of Resi’s closest friends. Those same friends live nearby, in a house they have built together with others from their social circle – an experiment in communal living that the group dreamed about in their twenties. Resi and Sven were given the opportunity to buy a share in the communal house, but opted to continue renting, a decision driven by Resi’s childhood, and her sense of place in the group.

Two key things happen – firstly, Resi and Sven had four children, and as Resi observes, ‘…children cost money, and you shouldn’t buy what you can’t afford.’

I must be a megalomaniac to think I could start a mega-big family without mega-grandparents and a mega-car and mega-incomes. It was rash. It was anti-social.

Secondly, Resi observes her once-idealistic friends become more and more ensconced in the comforts and compromises of money and success. She writes a book, openly criticising stereotypical family life and values, and soon after, she receives a letter of eviction, and realises that ‘…there are other kinds of currencies besides euros and cents’.

Only now, six years later, do I understand: Ingmar wanted to lend us the money to have us around, to spice up the building group, so it could be presented to its members and the outside world as a social project. ‘Well, we also have low-wage earners on board, you know. Artists…’

My thoughts about this novel are all over the place because of the disrupted reading, however, a few observations –

01. I immediately thought of the Bad Art Friend.

We need fables about how to bear unhappiness. Stories about hungry hearts, which you can tell without breaking your own.

02. Wasn’t a huge fan of the fact that Resi’s stream-of-consciousness is directed at her fourteen-year-old daughter, Bea, ostensibly to warn Bea about the falseness of people. Although it gave Stelling the opportunity to explain the basis for Resi’s actions, it also had a hint of tired lecturing.

03. I enjoyed Resi’s honesty regarding motherhood. She captures the overwhelming tedium and the immense love that often sit side-by-side.

Until I had children myself, I had no idea how powerless and power-drunk becoming a mother can make you.

And the bits about the decision to have four children (I have four children and it’s stunning how frequently people comment on the number) –

I have no idea how we manage, but recently I realised that ‘How on earth do you manage?’ isn’t a question or a compliment. It’s a euphemism that shows the person asking doesn’t think your life is manageable, and that you’re stupid to even try.

04. The flashbacks to Resi’s time at high school, when her friendships were forming and she first begins to notice the differences between having money and not, were very well done – again, Stelling captures the conflicting emotions perfectly.

Higher Ground was originally published in German, and is translated by Lucy Jones. I received my copy from the publisher, Scribe, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

3.5/5 I will certainly read more Stelling, and in the future I will make sure the reading experience is not diluted by time.

Friederike stood that night, she ended up standing in the corner with her feet turned in, drinking one Caipirinha after another, and it was logical that Ingmar fell for her.

3 responses

  1. I enjoyed revisiting this book through your review. I thought it was brilliant at skewering complacency and hypocrisy among the moneyed classes, and not just in Berlin…

    • I’m a bit cross at myself for not focusing on this book, given that I had so looked forward to reading it. I enjoyed the glimpses of Berlin but agree that the point Stelling was making about money and class applies to lots of places.

  2. I hate it where you know you’d be better reading a novel more frequently but can’t quite manage it. This does sound good but I imagine stream of consciousness is not best when you’re struggling – better to have plot to pull you along! Hope your rut resolves soon 🙂

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