Victoria University Press, NZ RRP $30.00
Learning how to live in the discomfort of the unknown fuels the plot of Bridget van der Zijpp’s third novel, I Laugh Me Broken, a book that explores the burden of genetics in our past and our future, and whether there’s a moral duty to know our fate.
Ginny’s recently engaged to a caring yet vanilla young man named Jay. Intrigued by a story about prisoner of war Count von Luckner escaping Motuihe Island in 1917, Ginny moves to Berlin to research a book about his life. This plan’s derailed by the news she receives from her cousin Zelda: news about her mother, who committed suicide when Ginny was younger, leaving her with a grief-stricken father, who, despite remarrying, buried his pain in the bottle. This information forces her to re-evaluate what she knew of her past and her parents, because no matter what Ginny’s step-sister Mel might wish to believe, Ginny’s mother didn’t kill herself to get away from her husband: she’d inherited Huntington’s disease.
A progressive brain disorder, Huntington’s affects movement, mood, and cognition. It’s progressive, and symptoms usually begin in your thirties or forties. Ginny might have inherited the gene for this disease from her mother – or not. The implications of this pulsate through her life, causing her to reconsider the choices she’s made and the ones she is yet to make. Should she take the test or not? Does she marry Jay or not? If she has only a short time left until she begins to show symptoms of this incurable disease, does she want to spend it living with one man, or should she be experiencing more of what the world can offer?
She thinks she needs time and space to think, so she leaves Jay behind and travels to Berlin alone. Her step-sister Mel lives there, though she’s away working most of the time. Ginny sublets a room in an apartment with Frankie and Florian and meets a colourful cast of new people in rapid succession: Bozorgmehr, an Iranian philosopher; Cristoph, the sexy upstairs neighbour; Pascual, a friendly Spaniard; Yvette, her flatmate Frankie’s Australian friend; and Lena, her cousin Philippe’s daughter.
This long train of new people are central to the novel, offering Ginny insight into other ways of living: not only is Ginny deliberating whether to be tested for Huntington’s, she wondering whether marriage and settling down is the right path to take. Should she choose hedonism or restraint? Does sexual freedom offer her freedom for the rest of her life? These questions are universal, but the looming threat of Huntington’s lends Ginny’s concerns more urgency. Although these strangers and new friends help Ginny discover truths about herself and the world, there’s a sense as a reader that I could see the behind-the-scenes work that is usually invisible. Conversations and interactions such as these are vital for a first-person narrative, so it’s a shame that they didn’t all feel more natural.
Van der Zijpp utilises the German language to expand on Ginny’s feelings and experiences with a sense of fun and thoughtfulness. German has incredible words for feelings and sensations that we don’t have in English, making it a true delight for writers. One of the words, Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the process of coming to terms with the past – is a central theme for the novel, clearly played out with Ginny coming to terms with the truth of her parent’s relationship and her possible genetic inheritance, and Germany’s refusal to forget, as seen in the memorials and museums in Berlin. This interplay between personal and universal is mostly successful, and there are touching scenes as Ginny learns more about her mother and her parent’s relationship. In another sense, it’s clear that Ginny only scratches the surface of the historical legacy of Germans and Germany, leaving her ‘the clueless one stumbling over the historical traps.’
Of course, the real engine of the book is powered by Schrödinger’s Cat: as long as Ginny doesn’t have the test, she both does and does not have the gene for Huntington’s. For most of the novel, I was just like everyone else Ginny meets. I was adamant she must get tested, that I would definitely get tested. Until I considered the reality of knowing, truly knowing. We all live in a constant state of limbo, unsure how many minutes, days or years we might have left. Would I take a test now to find out how and when I might die, even without the threat of an inherited disease? Would you? When the creeping threat of a ‘new flu thing in China’ begins to cast a thin shadow over the plot, you understand that it isn’t only Ginny living with the threat of imminent death. It’s in this messy unknown in which we all live: our tomorrows may never come, and we should be sure to hold close those we love.