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by Inka Parei
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Reviewed by Charlotte Simpson

It's taken twelve years for Inka Parei's first novel to be translated into English, but there's nothing about this book that feels dated. The protagonist, a young woman called Hell (light), lives in a dilapidated apartment block in late 1990s Berlin. Ostensibly the story of Hell's search for her missing neighbour, a woman called Dunkel (dark), the action in The Shadow-Boxing Woman switches between two time periods. We see Hell's current life, living in the midst of people but withdrawn and on the margins, surviving but not living. Parei also shows us Hell in 1989 when her life starts to disintegrate just as the two halves of her country are coming together.

Although the dramatic climax of the story rests on a slightly too convenient coincidence, this doesn't detract from the triumph of this book—the immediacy that Parei creates and the detailed descriptions of Hell's surroundings. I don't mean that there are pages and pages descriptions of the city; this book is only 170 pages long. It's that Parei has a wonderful way of explaining the city around Hell in simple but striking images. Her similes and metaphors are cleverly constructed to use ideas that are familiar to readers without resorting to trite images. For example, she describes snow as 'porous, the colour of burnt-out disposable camera flashes. The kind you put on cheap cameras next to the shutter release.' I can't imagine that I will see snow compared in such a way in any other book.

Parei's handling of the event that changes Hell's life is also very effective. I had to read the book twice because I hadn't picked up on the little things that said so much. The observation that Hell hasn't ‘worn a skirt for weeks now' tells the reader more about her emotional state than a lengthy description of her thoughts and feelings.

Parei gives the reader plenty to ponder in a relatively short book. Can Hell's likely re-emergence into a semblance of normal life at the end be a reflection on a new Germany moving into a new millennium? Are the light and dark names a joke with the reader, or do they represent the unification of east and west? The Shadow-Boxing Woman is my first foray into contemporary German literature (a shameful confession for someone who likes to consider herself well read and who is part of a project to promote international literature!) and I would recommend it highly as a great introduction to writing from this part of Europe.

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