cover image The Pollen Room

The Pollen Room

Zoe Jenny. Simon & Schuster, $20 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-684-85458-8

Abandonment by her mother precipitates a sad and debilitating chain of events for a young girl in this elliptical coming-of-age debut novel published last year to considerable fanfare and sales in Switzerland and Germany. In prose that even in translation is limpid and fresh, Swiss author Jenny begins the first-person narrative as the mother, Lucy, departing her first marriage, leaves kindergarten-age Jo in the care of her father, a publisher of books ""no one ever bought."" Swiftly, deftly, Jenny captures the loneliness of a young child whose father works at his press all day and drives a delivery truck all night to make ends meet. Fifteen years later, Jo is living with her mother and Alois, an artist. When he dies suddenly, Lucy retreats into his painting studio, gathering flowers from the garden at night and spreading their pollen all over the room. Jo witnesses her mother's mental breakdown and crashes through the studio windows to save her. Lucy refuses her help, and finally runs off with no explanation to an island in the Indian Ocean. Jo is left on her own to find herself, and to find someone to love her. Though lyrical, Jenny's elusively impressionistic style, without surnames, place names and other details, unmoors the narrative. But the emotional melody about Europe's rudderless children rings true and clear. Jenny is an unmistakable descendant of postwar German authors such as Frisch, Durrenmatt and Bachman; the anomie permeating her novel feels familiar. Rather than the depredations of war and its aftermath, however, Jenny describes the ravages of the late 20th century: drugs and raves; AIDS; neglectful, divorced parents; and ersatz culture. In the world that Jenny's characters inherit, a sacred town is razed to build hotels for religious pilgrims and the organ grinder's music comes not from an organ but a CD. Jenny's indictment is powerful and compelling. Agent, Petra Eggers. Foreign rights sold in U.K, France, Italy, Greece, Korea, Norway and the Netherlands. (Mar.)