Tiger Milk is Stefanie de Velasco’s debut novel and, appropriately enough, its focus is youth. It tells the story of a group of teenagers in Berlin, centring on the friendship of two fourteen year old girls, the narrator, Nini, and Iraqi refugee, Jameelah. The girls are rebellious and sexually precocious: in an opening section clearly designed to set the tone, Nini compares the taste of a piece of chewing gum she finds on the snowy ground as a young child with “the first time I put a condom on using just my mouth”. Details such as the mittens she was wearing and the Barbie doll she uses to spear the chewing gum emphasise the journey she has made in just a few years; that she and Jameelah talk their own language, replacing key vowels with ‘o’, suggests that she has not come as far as she thinks. However, as Jameelah says:
“We need to practise for later on, for real life, at some point we’ll need to know how it all works. We need to know everything so nobody can ever mess with us.”
This crossroads between childhood and adulthood (“real life”) is symbolised by the Tiger Milk they drink: disguised in a plastic container of chocolate milk, it contains “a little of the school cafeteria milk, a lot of maracuja juice, and a decent slug of brandy.” The suggestion they need the comfort of milk reminds us they are still children; that they require the attitude of a tiger tells us about the inhospitable world they must survive in.
Nini is the more innocent of the two. Not only is she often led by Jameelah, but she dismisses the threat of deportation which her friend faces:
“You have no idea how it works, Jameelah says, it can happen just like that.”
Much of the novel’s action is fairly conventional: we learn of the boys they love and their attempts to attract their attention. The fact they live in a community of immigrants, however, adds a different dimension, particularly when they are faced with a genuine moral choice when they witness the murder of one of their friends, Jasna. (Her death is the result of tensions between Serbs and Croatians). The scene of the murder is constructed to emphasise the way the girls are trapped between childhood and adulthood. It finds them running round a play park naked at midnight throwing rose petals, as per the instructions of a book of spells, in an attempt to win the love of their chosen ones. When Jasna appears they hide in the play fort – their outsized adult bodies confined in the child sized space. The murder itself is presented in a way which demonstrates their confusion and incomprehension:
“Are they dancing?
I think so.
Jameelah giggles softly.
Tarik and Jasna dance and they both start to cry, practically groaning…suddenly Jasna turns to the side and holds her hand to her stomach.”
Jameelah is insistent they tell no one what they have seen, even when another friend of theirs confesses to the crime; Nini is less certain. The friendship is put under strain as they are dragged unwillingly into a world of adult responsibilities as well as pleasures.
Tiger Milk gives the reader an insight into the world of working class teenagers in Berlin, and presumably in cities around Europe. There is a sense in which de Velasco presents Nini and Jameelah as typical – but this also makes it more difficult for them to stand out as characters. The community of immigrants is the novel’s most fascinating aspect, but as this is incidental to the narrator it remains in the background, though strangely fundamental to the novel’s plot. The novel was translated by Tim Mohr, who has also translated Charlotte Roche. Reading first person novels from the point of view of youthful protagonists, I wonder whether they are written in the particular register of the original country’s younger generation, almost impossible to translate into English without losing something (imagine Trainspotting in standard German, or even The Catcher in the Rye). This may be one reason I found this novel largely unaffecting.