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10/06/2022 | Literary criticism

"Light Breaks Before It Shines" by Becca Braun: On a special mother-daughter relationship, a farting Friedrich Schiller, and the question of love or freedom

by Wiebke Bierwirth

(Novel, 2022, 315 pages, dtv Verlag)

"Dear reader:inside, 
'Light breaks before it shines ' is a work of fiction, but it deals with issues that are potentially retraumatizing. These are: Pill abuse, death, grief, eating disorder, sexual harassment, emetophobia. You'll find a listing of places to go for help in the back of the book. 
All my love, Becca."


These words from the author begin the 2022 debut novel by Becca Braun, a literature and media culture scholar living in Cologne, Germany, which on the one hand provides a trigger warning for the readership, and on the other hand points out the complexity of the issues addressed in the novel.  

Although she dreams of a life in Berlin, Virginia begins her sociology studies in Havenitz, near her mother Mirella, who is not only addicted to sleeping pills, but also to her daughter's love. In addition to Dilara, Sascha and Benny, whom Virginia meets within a feminist university group, the protagonist also makes the acquaintance of the overambitious law student Benedict. Benedict comes from a wealthy background, while Virginia grew up with her single mother, who earns her living as a sex worker, in the trailer park of the small town. The two meet at a party, get to know each other, and grow closer.

At the beginning of her studies, and accompanied by her Chihuahua Friedrich Schiller, Virginia moves into her room in the university dormitory - "It's the first day of my new old life." But how long before her old life and toxic relationship with her mother catch up with her?

Although, based on the blurb, one might expect only a complicated love story here, the list of themes explored in the novel is long: from Virginia's point of view, and with a feminist-clever eye, you as a reader:are brought into situations that make you think about feminism, culture, identity, your own privileges, self-love and self-hate, racism, sexism, your own prejudices, needs, worries and desires. With that said, the novel begins quickly - without a long pre-narrative, you accompany Virginia to her first meeting of the feminist college group and get a preliminary glimpse of her difficult relationship with her mother. This feels very tangible throughout the plot. With the help of flashbacks from her childhood and the present feelings about her mother, described from Virginia's point of view, fluctuating between love and shame, her dealings with her become comprehensible to the reader. The question of love or freedom, which is repeatedly posed to her by Benedict in the novel, can likewise be related to her relationship with her mother - taking responsibility for her mother or pursuing her own needs?

"In my worst moments, I'm ashamed of her. I'm not ashamed of her job, but I am ashamed of her helplessness and dependence. In my worst moments, I wish I had a different mother. A mother who lives in an old apartment with too many plants, smells of expensive face cream, and researches Friedrich Dürrenmatt instead of reading his texts when she's feeling dirty."

Since the circle of friends around Virginia, Dasha, Sascha and Benny is made up of different origins, religions, sexualities, etc., it offers further scope for discussing the above-mentioned topics. Worth mentioning here is the successful exchange within the group. Braun portrays characters that are by no means perfect, even though they are all committed to an equal society and could all be described as woke in a broader sense. One positive thing that stands out here is how they deal with their missteps: Virginia is pointed out for her prejudice of assuming that Benny is gay just because he puts on makeup as a man. Dasha explains to Benny that it is racist to adopt the skin tone of People of Color. Both reflect on their actions, listen to the other, apologize, and internalize the criticism. Along the way, Becca Braun repeatedly takes on important social and political issues in her novel. However, while it does shape the characters to a certain extent, and the readership is encouraged to think for themselves as a result, the placement of so many different topics, in addition to the larger subjects, such as the toxic mother-daughter relationship, pill addiction, eating disorders, and general pressure to perform, feels a bit forced and, in places, too much for a single novel.

However, Virginia and Benedict's relationship deserves special mention - here Braun offers much more than a simple love story of two people from different social classes. As readers:inside, we accompany two people who learn from each other, support and protect each other:

"Out there, there's a world of pressure to perform, insecurity, calorie counting, and toxic parental relationships. But here, on my bed, it's just him and me and the magic in between."

Ultimately, it is not exclusively Benedict's social status that challenges Virginia and her relationship with him. And thus, the protagonist must ultimately ask herself if there is room in her life for the law student, in her already difficult situation, or if she is just projecting onto Benedict the anxieties she usually feels with her mother.

Virginia herself shines as a strong, reflective and smart protagonist who knows what she wants on the one hand and struggles with feelings of love, responsibility and guilt on the other. Empathizing with her situation is made easier primarily by Becca Braun's light but also pictorial, sometimes poetic writing style:

"I think. About death. It's male, well-dressed, and not a dry run. I thought, I am immortal. Stable democracy, functioning health care, access to education. I thought I was immortal. There is life. And death. In between, a period, not a comma."

Additionally, Braun succeeds in making each chapter exciting, so that as a reader:in you always want to stay tuned and never fall into a reading slump. This is also helped by the different storylines surrounding her friends at university and her relationships with Benedict and her mother, which repeatedly run into each other.

Becca Braun's "Licht bricht, bevor es strahlt" (Light breaks before it shines) is a successful debut novel that addresses important socio-political issues, portrays interesting, diverse and believable characters and makes us look forward to the author's next publications.