Few adult love affairs ever acquire the intensity of the bonds that develop between girls about to become teenagers if apparently convinced that they are already world weary women. For a while these vulnerable changelings, hovering between childhood and the brasher realities of the grown up world, appear to inhabit each other’s skins probably because they are so aware of their shared turmoil and anticipation. These friendships are mutually supportive yet also competitive particularly in matters of sexual initiation.
Nini and Jameelah are kindred spirits; both 14 and tempted by vague notions of romance. Together they saunter through the sticky summer streets of present-day Berlin. Wised-up and giddy, conversing in code, they smoke, taunt men, shop lift and drink a concoction composed of school cafeteria milk, maracuja juice and brandy; it keeps them sufficiently tipsy to feel immune from fear.
Jameelah is clever; together with her mother she fled Iraq after the deaths of her father and brother. She feels at home in Germany and wants to become a citizen; she knows all about Berlin yet, officially, remains an outsider, intent on becoming naturalised. In any day-to-day situation Jameelah is the boss and Nini, the blonde, likeable, slightly slower, less exotic, narrator knows this. But it doesn’t bother her; she even values the fact that Jameelah speaks Arabic at home and can interpret the Muslim world as well as its various cultural nuances.
First published in Germany in 2013 and dedicated to girls, this is a remarkable debut novel; any young reader will smile in recognition at many of the sensations described so vividly by Nini, as will older generations recalling their distant youth – only the smiles may well be undercut by sighs, even an occasional shudder, and tears of the kind that sneak up. It is so real; it is like seeing a film of one’s younger self. De Velasco is a bold, brave writer with an obvious feel for cinema and speech as spoken by real people. She has written a lively novel for a wide readership that could easily become a screenplay as the characters are already three-dimensional and Tim Mohr’s fluid, conversational translation rarely misses a beat.
These youngsters really do sound and behave like defiant teenagers. The dialogue is convincing, there are no contrived monologues. Nor is there any conventional punctuation; but who cares? Nini is telling the story, and she includes the remarks and exchanges between every one else. She is a plausible reporter; we believe her because the assured, wry de Velasco is completely in control of material that reflects daily life, not just in Berlin. This novel could be set anywhere and yet there is a compelling sense of the famously edgy contemporary multi-cultural German capital.
In Nini she has the ideal narrator, a wistful follower with an escapist streak which is nurtured by the more widely-read Jameelah who is less innocent, tougher, that bit more hardened by life and has inherited a sense of self from her mother, Noura, a quiet, kindly presence.
Without a trace of self-pity Nini makes it clear that her home life is not great. Her father walked out on the family and may or may not have taken her mother’s engagement ring, once the property of his own mother, to present to his new girlfriend. The ring gradually acquires a life of its own, it certainly has a history. Nini has a younger sister named Jessi who, courtesy of the unlocked drinks cabinet, is fast approaching wayward precocity and her catatonic mama does have a complacent live-in boyfriend Rainer who mistakenly feels that all is well with his little family.
Nini sees it differently: “Mama lays on the sofa basically all the time. Most of the time her eyes are closed, but when I come home she sometimes opens them and asks, where were you. When she opens her eyes she always looks horribly tired, like she had just arrived from some faraway place and only flopped down on the sofa here in our living room by blind luck. I don’t think she’s really looking for an answer to her question. Me on the other hand, I’d love to know where she was, where she always goes behind her shuttered eyelids, all those hours she spends alone on the sofa. Mama’s sofa is like a remote island she lives on. And even though that island is in the middle of our living room, a thick haze obscures it from view. You can’t dock on Mama’s island.”
Considering that de Velasco spares no one’s blushes and the narrative describes episodes in which the girls engage in casual prostitution, more for practice than for money, Nini’s candour is often appealing. Devoid of sentimentality, it is surprisingly touching and there are moments of unexpected beauty in the narrative because Nini, for all the bravado, has good instincts. She is describing events in some of which she is involved and others, one of which, a shocking killing crucial to the book, she observes.
But she is also preoccupied by her own struggles, reconciling herself to the way life is always changing. She is very young, yet suddenly feels old: “When I look out the window in my room I see the playground where I played as a child. We’ve lived here forever ... I learned how to walk and how to ride a bike on the pavement in front of our place.”
At times she can appear one beat behind Jameelah as when the Iraqi girl, on learning that she must leave Germany, and has been asked to hand in her passport, exclaims with her characteristic exasperation; “What do they think, that I’m Anne Frank or something?” Nini agrees that dropping out of sight would be a good idea and then adds: “Anne Frank. Anne Frank, wait, does she go to our school? The name sounds familiar.” She then realises that they had studied Frank’s famous wartime diary in class and she found it boring.
The honour killing which the girls witness, because they also happen to be in the park, following instructions from The Modern Witch's Spell Book in the hope of helping a romance develop, juxtaposes real life and childish fantasy. Both are related to dreams of love. The friends respond differently to the crime. Jameelah is practical and detached, but Nini, true to her soft, slightly bewildered, romantic nature, later alone in her bedroom, attempts to make sense of it: "Ever since I was a little kid I'd thought that death was something loud, like in the movies, blood spraying, screams, pieces of flesh flying, but none of that is true. Death is silent, it doesn't make any noise at all … Death takes you in its arms and softly moans goodbye."
Tiger Milk is real; it's earthy, raucous and convincing. These are likeable, vulnerable characters who are intrigued by sex, still use their Disney beach towels, discover death and believe in friendship. Loyalty is revered more highly than truth, even when justice wins out. The girls and their peers are also caught up in a multi-cultural real world in which the lines between children and adults remain evident yet are dangerously blurred.
Many novels about teenagers are sustained at a single frenetic pitch, De Velasco’s streetwise panache has energy and daring but there is also a subtle poignancy. Growing up is exciting, but it also hurts.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent