This Is Not A Love Song, by Karen Duve, translated by Anthea Bell

Fat chances on football field and in love fuel comedy of obesity
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The Independent Culture

As part of the World Cup celebrations, the German tourist authorities have launched a hearts-and-minds campaign that aims to charm their stereotype-prone neighbours.

Frankly, with the younger British target audience, I think they should go easy on the cuckoo-clock villages and instead distribute copies of Karen Duve's This is Not a Love Song. The German writer's second novel starts with Paul Gascoigne, ends with Gareth Southgate, nods to landmark hits from the glam, punk and disco eras -and delivers scene after scene of such outrageously black and bleak humour that it leaves our Mr Gervais looking just a little tame.

The book unfolds via a succession of life-defining flashbacks as its lovelorn, overweight heroine flies to London. There, the smug and sleek man who is the long-term object of her hopeless desire has tickets to the Euro 1996 semi-final - when Southgate's match-losing penalty miss against Germany condemned fans to (at least) 10 more years of hurt.

By now, 16-stone Anne has endured more than 30 years of misery. We track her ill-starred upbringing and grasp the murky forces that have made her body swell and her soul shrivel. Yet Duve somehow manages to fill this slow slide into gross obesity, self-harm and all-round psychic meltdown with a panoply of excruciating comic moments.

Parents, teachers, boys, food itself: all conspire to betray poor not-so-little Anne. In the background unrolls the naff suburban culture of 1970s and 1980s Hamburg - which, from Bowie and Lego to Milky Ways, feels painfully familiar.

Adulthood brings not relief but more control, as Anne flunks the exams for a tax-inspector's career (her dad's "idea of a dream profession"). She settles down as a tough-cookie cab driver who dabbles in gruesome therapy workshops and even a hilarious SM orgy - more Mike Leigh than Sacher-Masoch. All the time, an unrequited passion for the perfect Peter Hemstedt sharpens her sorrow. His posting to a suitably swanky job in London draws her to the city as that decisive semi-final looms.

"What curses were spoken over my cradle?" hapless Anne wails. By and large, Duve leaves us to answer that, as her flair for skin-crawling comic crises and keen ear for the ever-changing backing-tracks of pop culture drive the book along. It's also blessed by a pacy and pitch-perfect translation from the incomparable Anthea Bell. Read it and weep, and cringe, and chortle.