Small-scale intimate family chronicle
Despite the astonishing success of the novel The Second Man, Doeschka Meijsing has resisted the temptation to repeat herself. This time she has written a small-scale chronicle of four generations of women in her family: 100% Chemistry, following the trail back from herself to her mother Ilna, grandmother Bettina Bory and great-grandmother Maria Blumenträger. A story spanning more than a century, which in 1934, under the threat of war, was to take the family from Frankfurt to the Netherlands.
This family chronicle is not told chronologically, but in leaps and bounds, with Meijsing balancing elegantly on the edge of fact and fiction, using family stories for her own ends; in the book the writer is constantly interrupted by her stubborn and powerful mother. ‘You must always watch your step, when all your children are writers, she says indignantly. ‘They always twist the truth and make up all sorts of things.’
The argument between mother and daughter dominates 100% Chemistry, and gives the book a light, contrary tone. Whether they are true or not, Meijsing has recorded the family stories wonderfully. She gives the ‘German’ period a mysterious shimmer, though there are glimpses beneath of the imminent fall of the West. And the anecdotes from the post-war period, in which Meijsing could draw on her own experience, are often hilarious. The most infectious descriptions are those of holidays in the 1950s, in which the Meijsing family invariably tried to drive across the Alps to Italy in an old, clapped-out car. They were hellish and exciting journeys from garage to garage, rewarded by the clear blue southern sky.
The novel’s title is taken – how could it not be – from a pronouncement of her mother’s. When, at the age of eighty-two, she hears on television one evening that human DNA has been decoded, she, a lifelong practising Catholic, says in astonishment, ‘I think we’re made up of a hundred percent chemistry.’ Her daughter is alarmed, and says to her mother, that there must be something like ‘the soul’.
This dialogue is the core of 100% Chemistry. Given an acute lack of tradition, Meijsing has tried to put into words what links her to the women in her family. The bare facts are insufficient. Only in her imagination, mythologising, dreaming and speculating, can Doeschka Meijsing find the soul of her family.