Tsum | Review: Sarah Mesa – Breadhead

A fragile and disturbing adventure

Of course thirteen-year-old girls have to spend their days at school, even if they are unhappy there and given names like “Breadhead”, because they are a little overweight. What happens, however, if a thirteen-year-old walks down the path to the park instead of the path to school and simply reads a magazine among the bushes and trees? After all, as long as they don’t find her, she’s at peace. Spanish author Sara Mesa follows such a girl in her new novel bread head. Already on the first page, her peace is disturbed by an old man, a bird watcher, as it turns out later. And this combination of an old man and a girl of about fourteen is unsettling. Until the very end, as a reader, you watch among the bushes, remaining on your guard and holding your breath.

Soon the girl and the guy become each other’s “hurry” and “old man”. You don’t know what the old man thinks. Perspective lies with Haast. She’s not crazy. She was careful from the start:

She sweeps her gaze from bottom to top: sleek lace-up shoes, stylish light-colored pants, a matching jacket—made of thick, despite the heat—and a sporty backpack over his shoulder that contrasts with the rest of his outfit. She looks at his fat, freckled hands, his little blond head, his metallic glasses and mustache, his messy, slightly twisted hair. She finds it funny, but it’s not so funny that she drops her skepticism.

He excitedly tells her about exotic bird species and his beloved American singer, Nina Simone. After a long story he apologizes and calls himself annoying because he talks so much when no one warns him. The girl’s remarks are so detailed that as a reader you can almost palpably feel the man next to her, involuntarily feeling a little uncomfortable, while in reality nothing inappropriate is going on.

In the first part of the book, “The Park”, they meet every day, except for weekends, when Haast does not have to go to school. You get to know the guy better and better. He is the son of an incestuous relationship between a father and his daughter. He lives a lot on his own and was admitted to an institution once. There are criticisms of how patients are treated. So many questions remain for Haast and she is afraid to ask them all. It is precisely because of these open spaces that the author skillfully causes discomfort and discomfort in the reader. Can things go well? At the same time, the friendship between these two underdogs is touching, as they kiss passionately toward each other:

One day she unexpectedly burst into tears and the old man took her on her lap. The physical intimacy that then arises spontaneously is new and makes them uncomfortable. Yet they sat like this for a few minutes, breathing in the same rhythm as he ran his hands through her hair—the first time he had stroked her—and she laid her arms on his legs and her head on his stomach. The old man does not ask why you are crying. This is an unnecessary question: you have to be able to feel it. Don’t even rush to explain it. She knows he doesn’t need that. It’s the quiet, just that quiet, emphasized by a blue tit’s song–do you hear, blue tit? It’s all the old man says – and the cold air, the approaching winter, and the wind are ominous.

Tension arises when it becomes clear how Haast deceived her school and her parents. You feel it won’t be long before the secret encounters are discovered. Haast writes in her diary, imagining the old man. The reader realized that this girl needed love and touch like no other girl of that age. All of her classmates have friends. Why can’t this be her elderly boyfriend? The infantile self-evidence that Misa continually puts into Haast’s perspective causes shared ideas about what is and is not acceptable to stumble.

In the second part, “The Café”, Old Man and Haast meet after a long time at the Café. They are also not organized there: they go on talking endlessly at a table, without asking anything, thus driving the cafe staff into despair. Little by little it is revealed what happened in the meantime, how prejudices have led to misunderstandings and thus a distortion of reality, and how vulnerable a child of about fourteen is when everyone thinks of the affair. Who is really a victim?

bread head It is a touching story about two people who don’t quite get along with their environment. It invites empathy and a critical review of our own biases and expectations.

Dietsk Girls

Sarah Mesa – bread head. Translated by Nadia Rami. Universal Library, Amsterdam. 142 pages 21.99 euros.

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