Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

“I never want to see myself again. Do you understand – never…I’m fine with it. I’m living a fulfilled life…I even keep finding girls who are willing to try to be with me despite my face.”

Marek is 17. Mauled by a rottweiler, he’s had a number of operations to rebuild his face, a face he now refuses to look at and partially covers by permanently wearing sunglasses. The novel begins when he arrives at a group he’s been told is a private tutorial session. When he sees he’s arrived at a door marked Family Services Center: Meditation Room he turns to leave only to see a girl he likes the look of. He stays and returns the following week, despite describing it to Claudia, his mother, as ‘a goddam support group for cripples with some pathetic wannabe showman in charge’.

There were six of us. Aside from me and the girl, there was a long-haired guy with a prosthetic leg, an amorphous doughy figure with a froth of red hair on his or her head (with no apparent disability), a long-legged drag queen with a nervous gaze that bounced around the room, and a frowning arrogant-looking pretty-boy who was wearing sunglasses like mine. Though mine were certainly pricier. He was the only one who didn’t turn his face in my direction.

The third week, when the guru brings up Marek’s accident, he walks out and doesn’t return for week four. He doesn’t get out that easily though as Marlon (the ‘pretty boy’) and Fredrick (the ‘amorphous doughy figure’) arrive at his house to inform him that the guru wants to film them.

“He might make a proper film about us. A documentary about a group of disabled people. Insights that could break down prejudice, understand?”

Marek returns to the group who then organise a week away to work on the film, a week where tensions are high and disaster strikes Marek’s family, forcing him to deal with a number of big issues.

Just Call Me Superhero is one of those rare novels that flows easily (credit to the translator there too), is compelling and tackles important ideas without ever patronising the reader or becoming overbearing. That Bronsky has chosen to tell the story in first person through the eyes of Marek helps with this. As Janne says to him:

“You’re so young and yet already such an asshole.”

He’s a seventeen-year-old boy coming to terms with the permanent disfigurement of a face which used to be handsome. He needs to adjust to the physical changes as well as working out how to interact with new people having rejected those he knew prior to the accident.

Bronsky shows the reactions people have to Marek through his eyes; she also allows us to access his head, therefore letting us make our own decisions about the way the disfigurement has affected him. The group of people he refers to as ‘cripples’ Bronsky also shows as people. There are no significant statements regarding disability or sexuality merely a group of people behaving like people, essentially by reading the book, we watch the film that Richard wants the guru to make.

There is so much more I could say about this novel, but once we get into the tragedy that befalls Marek’s family, I’d be spoiling a huge chunk of the book. Let’s just say: aren’t families complex and interesting? Don’t you learn a huge amount from dealing with them?

Just Call Me Superhero is a very good novel. Bronsky makes writing look easy: the voice is consistent and believable and the plot twists and turns in interesting ways, some of which are shocking, designed – I think – to challenge lazy assumptions about a variety of people. This is Bronsky’s third novel, although it’s the first I’ve read. I’ll be seeking out the others now; she’s a very interesting writer indeed.

If you are in or near London on Saturday, Alina Bronsky is in conversation with Jenny Downham at the Goethe Institut. More details here.

Thanks to Europa Editions for the review copy.

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12 thoughts on “Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

  1. Great review, Naomi. I haven’t read anything by Bronsky but it sounds as if she’s well worth seeking out. I’ve seen quite a few positive reports of her previous one, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.

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  2. Everything I’ve seen about Brodsky makes me want to read her books, and I’m not quite certain why I haven’t until now… I am curious about how Brodsky presents her teenagers (too often I feel that books geared towards an adult audience make their teens unrealistically clever and cynical to “offset” their teen-ness), whether it ever feels like Marek rationalizes his world in an adult manner. Sounds like she’s presenting disabilities in a balanced way, though! It’s unfortunately so rare in literature…

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    • I didn’t feel that Marek ever rationalised his world in an adult manner. I spent years working with teens and he sounded convincing to me – neither too young, too clever, too cynical nor too analytical. He’s stroppy and self-centered whilst being very conscious of his looks. The rest of the group also behave like teenagers. Yes, I think many writers overcompensate.

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  3. I think Bronsky is one of the most exciting young writers to come out of Germany in recent years. Funnily enough, her books seem to be marketed (at least in US) with fluffy chick-lit covers, which is most certainly what they are not! I’m trying to get my hands on Broken Glass Park, her first book, which has also been filmed.

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    • Oh, that’s interesting; it’s by a woman, stick a pink cover on it! I’d definitely like to read her others now. The film you mention is being shown after the event in London I’ve linked to at the bottom of the review. It’s a shame I can’t go, I’d like to hear her talk about her work.

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  4. A lovely essay: many thanks. It seems at least 50% of the books I want these days, based on blogger reviews, come from Europa. The company has obviously come up from nowhere real fast.

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  5. Pingback: Book Lists for All Humans #2 | The Writes of Woman

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