The Trouble With Belonging by Magdalena Stanhoff

Magdalena Stanhoff has written a truly lovely book about two people, Kehuan and Niki, and their relationship. It spans many years from their first meeting as children through their school years and tragedies that befall them, and beyond into the years of young adulthood.

The main action of the book takes place in Poland where Kehuan finds himself living with his work-driven father, having moved there. Finding himself adrift a little as his father struggles to cope with the new situations and roles that they both find themselves in, Kehuan takes to the streets and it is here, wandering around that he first encounters Niki, also known as Veronica, and their individual paths become inevitably intertwined.

There are lots of positives about this book. Stanhoff’s writing style is simple and the direction of her narrative never stutters. Her authorial voice is a clear guide through the lives of her two key characters and she draws them, through her descriptions of their actions, the actions of those around them and the involvement of the reader in their inner thoughts, into full bodied people of whom I felt like I had a good sense, especially Kehuan who is brooding and unapproachable to most but a caring human being when it comes to Niki.

What I especially liked is that this is a story about love and friendship. Yes, it has the cross-cultural discussion in the tensions that the colliding of different cultures and outlooks can present but this is a book that is centred on people and how they relate to each other on a human level. Stanhoff shows that as long as the constructs that society develops to frame us do not drive us or are not given importance; that we view individuals for who they are not what they represent, then there are no real barriers. Kehuan and Niki’s relationship is representative of this in its purest form but there are other unlikely friendships that form too, with an overruling of attitudes developed by society.

If I have a criticism, it is that sometimes the syntax was a little clunky but this was rare and minor, and was entirely overwhelmed by my investment in the story.

It is an optimistic book and one that made me feel warm. I want to call it a nice book but “nice” has such connotations of blandness today that it would be a disservice.

This review was first published on Reedsy Discovery where I was privileged to read it as an ARC.

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