“In den kommenden Schleifen werden auch andere Lebende Adas Haut anfassen. Manchmal fester, so dass Ada ihre Hände zu Fäusten wird machen müssen,  und manchmal so zattz, so innig, dass sie nichts anderes wird machen können, als lautlos zu schmelzen. Unmöglich wird es ihr sein, zu deuten, welche Art der Berührung schlimmer sei. Damals wusste ich, dass die Haut von Ada – anfänglich so dünn und zerbrechlich wie die Flamme einer Kerze – durch jene Berührung immer fester werden wird.”

“In the loops to come, other living beings will touch Ada’s skin as well. Sometimes so roughly that  Ada will have to make fists, and sometimes so gently, so intimately that she will be able to do nothing but melt silently. It will be impossible for her to interpret which kind of touch is worse. At that time I knew that Ada’s skin – initially as thin and fragile as the flame of a candle – would become more and more solid with that touch.”

(Adas Raum p. 177, my translation)

Adas Raum is the debut novel of Sharon Dodua Otoo  after a number of novellas, collections and of course the short story Herr Göttrup setzt sich hin, with which she won the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Prize in 2016. 

Adas Raum is a fascinating novel telling the story of women – Adas – throughout history: an Ada in 1459 Ghana just on the cusp of early colonization, an Ada in 1848 London vaguely recognizable as a version of Ada Lovelace, an Ada in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in Germany 1945, and in the second half of the book a Ghanaian-British Ada in contemporary. The plot of the stories of the characters mirror each other on a structural level, even if their experiences are very different. The four Adas are in many ways “looped” versions of the Ada, caught in loops of time and  spacetime. The Adas are not just the core characters of the novels, but in many intricate ways also the anchor points of the time, space and history of the world Dodua Otto creates. 

What most surprised me is the scope of the world-building is in this novel. Familiar with most of her earlier work, already expected the prose to be compelling, non-obvious narrative devices and a focus on a play with narrative and historic time based on what I read in text in advance of the release. The narrative structure and in particular the narrated world that is created through the writing is more expansive than I initially thought. 

The chapters focusing on the Adas’ perspective are great, but the best moments are in the chapters focusing on the characters and circumstances around Ada, and particularly those chapters told through the somewhat godly, somewhat omniscient “being”. The being is in coversation with God and is constantly reborn/recreated into things like a broom 1459 Ada is beaten with, a door knocker on Ada’s house in 1868, the brothel room of 1945 Ada, and contemporary Adas British passport. The being and the Adas are connected through – something like destiny, but think less celestial beings and all of humanity and more a non-human project manager and a mix of events and tasks.

What makes the narrative most compelling is that the grand arch of history is happening just outside of scope of the destiny of the Adas and the being. (Some of the play with nonlinear history reminded me of Vonnegut.)

Sharon Dodua Otoo manages to tell complicated history, including colonialization, trauma, war and Nazi Germany, through a dense, compelling, in many way small project affecting the core characters of the book in two loops. In some ways, this book is about the plight of people who would be a footnote in canonical History(™) books, centers on one loop of destiny/time/history, includes the grand narratives in sentences littered throughout the pages, and in sum manages to decenter and tell history of our time at the same time. 

Writing this, I realize that I’ll have to reread the book. One loop isn’t enough. 

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