Sunlight has the taste of a blood pear, did you know that? Me neither. I’ve never given enough time to compare all the different types. Giving yourself the space to do all that seems like something that would be nice but in reality is low-priority. Tasting Sunlight by Ewald Arenz (translated from German by Rachel Ward) will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about pears. But it will give you so much more: from encouraging you to reappraise your relationship with nature to asking you whether you give other human beings the space they need to thrive under their own terms. At a time when two years of pandemic have damaged the way in which we humans interact with others and our place in the world, Arenz challenges us to go back to nature but at the same time remember that we are creatures of community.
Sally is a young woman who is on the run from her residential therapy. She’s had enough of dancing to the tune of medics and therapists. No one understands, and as a result Sally is full of anger. She lands up on the farm of Liss, a forty-something who runs a sprawling farm single-handed. Liss’s back story takes a bit longer to emerge, but she has as much to gain from the tentative, gentle relationship that ripens as slowly but surely as the potatoes in Liss’s fields.
Here two women, neither of whom have been allowed to be at the centre of their lives, find that, given time, trust and purpose, and a conducive setting, they can find new purpose. They don’t expect anything from each other, indeed conversations can be a bit desultory. But Liss gives Sally space: she doesn’t react when Sally kicks off. This intergenerational nature of the relationship is poignant but also key to the way in which the novel works.
Neither wants a conversation with a health care professional that is centred around ‘best practice’ and involves holistic approaches to something called wellness. One of the women is up to her ears with insincere-sounding conversations that are about care plans and that don’t put her interests and needs first. The other just doesn’t have time and even if she did, the people around her have largely already judged her. This is a small village in rural Germany where actions are remembered across generations.
They talk about pears, and produce, and how to look after bees. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but Sally and Liss have the space to overcome setbacks both within their relationship and from the outside world.
The road to redemption is rocky, and unpredictable. Sally’s anger and Liss’s understanding of this and of her own back story leads to some heartbreaking conclusions. Arenz is careful not to over-romanticise the rural setting. Sally’s interaction with a countryside about which she knows nothing could have been over-sentimental. In fact, she’s not keen on nature for its own sake: she doesn’t want an idyllic environment which she associates with decadence and hypocrisy. More relevantly, she doesn’t see the point. She loves exercise and movement, but now she observes Liss running the farm single-handed, lumping produce about and manipulating machinery, she begins to see a purpose to it all. Nature can be cruel, things get killed, there are accidents, but it’s the cycle of it all that helps Sally escape the casual rhythms of social media and become more interested in what is around her. Everything is sensuous: the food, the soil, the leaves in the trees and the squawking of the chickens.
The end of the novel itself is not what I would have predicted and far better for it, for it reminds the reader that the cliche of ‘an escape to the country’ would be precisely that. Redemption can be found among a roaring tractor and an historic orchard. But nature on its own is not enough. It hasn’t been enough for Liss, who has lived on this farm for years. For Liss, Sally’s arrival begins to unlock a future. For Sally, Liss provides a perspective that she has been unable to hear from others. This novel is about fresh perspectives, and the need to give the people around us the space to develop their own. It’s a special, beautiful novel that is timely and needed.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.