In Alina Bronsky’s debut novel, Broken Glass Park, a tough seventeen-year-old is confronted with a series of horrifying, adult, and human nemeses. In an age when fictional teenage protagonists seem mainly to do battle with vampires and prep school bullies, this alone is enough to shock the reader. But Bronsky goes further, and makes her street-savvy seventeen-year-old a girl; in doing so, she turns an old archetype—the “angry young man” established early in books like Catcher in the Rye—into something interesting and new.
Sascha Naimann, the girl in question, is refreshingly forthright in her scorn for the adults that have done her wrong, and, in a way, for everyone. Sascha is Russian-born but, we are told, moved to Berlin with her family, including her mother, her step-father, and two half-siblings, when she was ten. Although her intelligence earns her a place in a fancy private school, her home life is a sharp contrast: she lives in a poor and dangerous Russian neighborhood where drugs and violence reign. She narrates the book with a jarring, revealing efficiency; she displays none of the stuttering angst that some American writers lend their teenage protagonists, none of the self-doubt. “Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams,” the book begins. “I have two . . . I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother. I already have a title: The Story of an Idiotic Redheaded Woman Who Would Still Be Alive If Only She Had Listened to Her Smart Oldest Daughter.” Vadim is Sascha’s worthless, manipulative ex-stepfather, and also the murderer of her mother. When a local newspaper conducts a somewhat-sympathetic interview with the jailed Vadim, the enraged Sascha goes looking for the author. Instead, she encounters the editor, who briefly takes her in; her relationships with him and with his son serve as important detours on her quest to kill Vadim. Broken Glass Park is in some ways a straightforward revenge fantasy, except that its protagonist seems mainly to be exacting revenge upon herself—through a series of destructive and sometimes gruesome decisions and encounters. The adults around her are clueless, incompetent, misguided, or evil. It is her scorn for them, her tangible anger, that propels the book and gives it its furious pulse. Its quick rhythm, along with the sheer number of horrible things that happen to Sascha, certainly make the reader want to turn the page—but it almost feels voyeuristic to do so. Maybe even slightly immoral.
It seems fair to ask whether the author would have been wise to offer more relief or redemption for her narrator—a break; fewer tragedies; a real friendship. Had Bronsky done this, it might indeed have made Broken Glass Park a more pleasurable read, but I’m not sure it would have made it a better novel. For the point of the book, in many ways, seems to be its protagonist’s suffering, and her prolonged unwillingness to crack. Sascha invites suffering in. She seems to revel in it, in a kind of self-punishment that goes beyond the bounds of normalcy. One of the most poignant moments in the book involves Sascha’s visit to a kindly old couple, connected loosely to her through her late mother. They, too, are grieving, and their home is painted as a refuge of sorts, “a house with a garden” with “moss-covered cobblestones” out front and an apple tree in the back, very different from Sascha’s dingy apartment in Berlin’s projects. They offer Sascha cake and tea and speak lovingly to her, give her money. On her way out the door, the wife says, “If you ever need anything . . .”, and Sascha replies, “I’ll holler.” For the rest of the book, as Sascha goes further and further down the rabbit-hole of somewhat self-inflicted suffering, the reader begs her silently to do just this: to holler, to stop for a moment and stand in place and breathe.
But she does not do this until the end of the book, and when it happens it’s against her will; the gasping breath she takes in the book’s finale is in some ways also the sound of her breaking, finally, of succumbing to the pain and misery from which she has been distracting herself in various ways for months, or maybe years.
Broken Glass Park is, above all, fearless. The narrator is defiantly, unapologetically herself: female, but like no other female I’ve encountered in literature; still a child, but tasked with all the responsibility of an adult; angry, and unwilling to mitigate her anger with a nod toward likeability. But because of this she is likeable, and real, and complex. Bronsky’s strength is in her unwillingness to back off. The most painful parts of her novel are also the most vivid, the most interesting, and ultimately the most redemptive.