Guest Post : Book Review :Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

FullSizeRender-6

It seems that Jack has got the blogging bug……..or possibly he is looking for distractions from writing his dissertation. Here is another blog post from him :-

When my mum suggested that I read Everything I Never Told You in order to review it, I was a bit apprehensive. After reading the blurb and the first few chapters, I thought that this was going to be a whodunit-esque murder mystery and therefore I told myself that I would’t enjoy this book. I trudged along though and the more I read , the more I enjoyed the book.

The story focuses on the Lees, an Asian-American family, living in a small town in Ohio during the 1970’s. The family is made up of Marilyn, the mother, who has become the very thing she despises the most; James, the father, whose greatest wish is to just fit in ;Nath, their eldest child, who can’t wait to leave; Hannah, their youngest and the most observant of them all, and Lydia, the favourite child. We join the Lees on the morning of May 3rd 1977, the day that Lydia dies.

Although this book starts with a death, it is primarily about those that were left behind. We see the mystery of Lydia’s death unravel through the eyes of each of the family members and as we do, we learn more about each of them and more about Lydia as well. Having so many narrators can often be confusing, but Ng is able to move the story between each of the characters without interrupting the flow of the story, which, in my opinion, is an impressive feat.

The story also flits effortlessly between time frames. We learn about James’ and Marilyn’s childhoods, how they met and what happened that one summer before Lydia died, the thing that that no one can talk about. We learn about Lydia’s childhood too.

Ng highlights the natural frictions that exist within a family unit. All this tension kept me on the edge of my seat and made me want to find out how the family is going to cope, once all their secrets finally come out.

Ng also deals with what it is like to grow up under the ever constant shadow of parental expectation. She captures beautifully the struggle between making your family proud and being your own person.

Ng also explores  issues of race.  She uses the character of James,  the son of Chinese immigrants,  to investigate  this topic the most. James just wants to fit in and becomes a professor of American History, specifically studying cowboys. He is constantly searching for ways to blend in and disappear from the spotlight that he feels has been on him since he was a child. Marylin, however,  sees him differently. She loves James because of his ‘uniqueness’ not in spite of it. She also sees herself as being different and has
aspirations that extend beyond the kitchen, aspirations that she forces upon Lydia.

Ng tells an exciting story with refreshing characters. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read from an up-and-coming author and I am excited to see what else she has to offer.

Jack Chorley

Guest Post : The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun trans. Deborah Smith

GetAttachment.aspx

I am pretty tied up at the moment trying to read my way through the Bailey’s Prize Long-list.I am still being sent some lovely books to read and review and feeling pretty stressed out by it !

When I received The Salmon , by best-selling Korean Poet Ahn Do-hyun ,I knew immediately who would most want to read and enjoy this book : my son Jack Chorley. He’s a real East Asian literature fan and is at home on holiday from Uni at the moment. He only has a dissertation to write so has far more time than me to review books for a blog. So without further ado , over to you Jack.

First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone, even if they don’t share my love of East Asian literature . It would make an excellent “first book” when dipping your toes into the often confusing waters of Asian literature. This book is set out almost like a fairytale (it even has pictures in it!!) and follows the story of Silver Salmon as he makes his journey back to the mighty Green River to spawn. Unlike the rest of the salmon in his shoal, however, Silver Salmon is different . He is covered in silver scales, unlike the blue and white ones of his fellow Salmon, and he is also inquisitive about the world around him.

At first, as with a lot of the Asian literature I have read in the past, I thought this book would be about finding identity in the face of normality, even the title of the book seemed to hint at this. I believed this book would be about finding adventure when faced with a strict regime but although the story does deal with this at the beginning, by the end it’s about something else entirely. It has more to do with realizing that there is something bigger than the individual. Silver Salmon struggles with finding meaning in his life and doesn’t understand why he must travel up the Green River to spawn, a fate that means certain death for the salmon. Through his eyes we see the importance of finding your place in nature. Silver Salmon learns these truths through conversing with other aspects of nature such as the leaves, a stepping-stone and the Green River itself.

This is also a love story. Silver Salmon meets Clear-Eyed Salmon, a female in his shoal, and even though biology dictates that they must mate, they decide to do so out of love. Clear-Eyed Salmon teaches Silver Salmon how the see through the “eyes of the heart”, which, for much of the book, means looking through the eyes of nature itself. This enables Silver Salmon to see beauty where he couldn’t before. This, along with some overt messages about the human relationship with nature, gives this book a certain conservational slant.

As a zoologist, I thought the language used by Ahn Do-hyun, and translated by Deborah Smith, and the message it sends is a beautiful and important one. Ahn Do-hyun highlights the human tendency to look at things as “other”, or below us, just like the salmon hawk looks down upon the Salmon. Throughout the story you realize that it is only by looking at nature as a whole and coming to peace with it that we will save it. We must put ourselves in the salmon’s shoes, as it were.

Finally this book is about passing on to future generations the message that the easy way is not always the right way. We must make our own decisions in our lives, even if they do not fit into our idealized view of the world. A salmon should take the salmon’s way, just as we must take the path that is set out for us and not for anyone else. The messages set out in this book are hard-hitting and speak  about a lot of aspects of humans relationship to nature. It may be written simply, but this means the messages are clear and free of pretension or ego. The message is the message, just like a salmon is a salmon.

Thank you to Jack for that wonderful review….not bad for a first attempt. A big thank you to Deborah Smith and Pan Macmillan for the review copy. The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher  is published on 9th April.

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

book_cover-4

There’s been a problem on the line. The 17.56 fast train to Stoke has been cancelled, so its passengers have invaded my train and it’s standing room only in the carriage. I, fortunately, have a seat, but by the aisle, not next to the window, and there are bodies pressed against my shoulder, my knee, invading my space. I have an urge to push back, to get up and shove. The heat has been building all day, closing in on me, and I feel as though I am breathing through a mask. Every single window has been opened and yet, even while we’re moving, the carriage feels airless, a locked metal box. I cannot get enough oxygen into my lungs. I feel sick.

This passage from Paula Hawkins’ new thriller will chime with anyone who commutes regularly. I am not a big fan of the thrillers and I don’t read very many. It remains a genre that produces big sales and the publishing industry is now on a quest to find the new Gone Girl, whose ( to me inexplicable) success recently led to a Hollywood film. There are several highly publicised thrillers coming out this year which like  Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train are by women and feature female protagonists.

Hawkins’ staring point is the monotony of a daily train commute – you see the same faces, stop at the same stations and pass through the same landscapes day in day out. One way out of the boredom is to invent fictional lives and names for the people whose lives cross ours everyday , albeit briefly.

This is how we first meet Rachel, one of the three female narrators of the book. She is a commuter but with a difference. In the wake of a failed marriage, her drink problem has caught up with her and she is now taking the same train every day to hide from her flatmate, and maybe from herself too, that she has lost her job and her life is approaching meltdown.

On the train she relives the moment that she discovered Tom was cheating on her with his now wife, Anna :

I found out the way everyone seems to find out these days : an electronic slip. Sometimes it’s a text or a voicemail message ; in my case it was an email, the modern-day lipstick on the collar.

Rachel is obsessed with Tom and is accused of stalking him. Her alcoholism means that she can’t always remember exactly what happened the night before. She is the classic unreliable narrator….or is she ? We also hear from two other female characters Anna, Toms new wife, and Megan, a young woman Rachel glimpses from the train every day, who each add a different perspective to the story. It is not really possible to say much more without running the risk of giving a spoiler.

I enjoyed The Girl On The Train very much. None of the characters are particularly likeable but the book is tightly plotted and kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next.As with any thriller, there are a few red herrings that kept me guessing and the plight of Rachel ,who descends from social drinking to full-blown alcoholism, is sympathetically told.

An ideal book for a long winter’s evening…..or, indeed, a long train journey.

The Girl On The Train was published on 15th January. My thanks to Alison Barrow and Transworld for the review copy.

 

2014….My Reading Best Bits !

Rather than compile a list of my ‘best’ books of 2014 , I thought I would write a short piece about two ‘box sets’ I have read this year and which have had a massive impact on me.

Both of them are translated fiction which is interesting as I don’t tend to read much fiction in translation. I do read a lot of Francophone fiction, which of course includes Canadian and African fiction, but I read that in the original.

One of my choices is by an enigmatic woman and the other by a man now famous for letting it all hang out so that is quite a nice balance , as it happens!

The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante :trans Anne Goldstein

IMG_2412

These tell the story of Lena and Lila born into the Neopolitan slums just after the second world war. Three volumes are currently available in English, a fourth volume is to be published in Italian in early 2015 with , hopefully, the English translation following towards the end of the year.

Why are they so compelling ? Ferrante creates a ghetto that you can almost smell and taste, the characters fizz with life. Lila and Lila are the two central figures but many of the other characters reappear throughout the narrative , all caught in the web which pulls both women back to the neighbourhood they try to escape.

Ferrante explores the tensions and the joys of a female friendship. She also looks at the political history of Italy in the late 20th Century, still reeling from WW2, and the impact of feminist thinking on the lives of women during that time.

Ferrante herself refuses all interviews and very little is known of her personal circumstances. There has even been speculation in the Italian press that “she” is in fact a male writer. Ferrante herself remains impassive :

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard : trans Don Bartlett

IMG_2410

In terms of self publicity, Knausgaard is about as far away from Ferrante as you can get.His six volume opus, ironically titled Min Kamp in Norwegian, has been a publishing sensation in his native country, although the writer now lives in Sweden, and throughout the world.

So far only three volumes are available in English with the fourth expected in Spring 2015.

I am going to see Knausgaard at Foyles in January 2015 and I expect I will have more to say after that ; I did, however, listen to a recording of an interview with him over the summer. In it he described how he decided that instead of taking things out when writing fiction, he wanted to see what would happen if you left it all in.The novels are all finely crafted but the minutiae of life is recorded. As well as bringing him unexpected fame, the novels have also brought Knausgaard into conflict with his family as he describes his father’s descent into alcoholism, violence, his own marital problems as well as his wife’s mental illness with an almost brutal honesty. What results is a modern day Scandi Proust.

Books 1 and 3 are very bleak, but I hadn’t expected the humour in Book 2. I defy anyone who has had small children to care for not to recognise something of themselves in those pages. Karl Ove adores his kids but describes his battle to cope with the every day grind and drudgery of life at home with small children when he is a stay-at-home parent. Eventually he conquers his own resistance and surrenders to domesticity.

What had once irked me, walking through town with a buggy, was now history, forgotten and outlandish, as I pushed a shabby buggy with three children on board around the streets, often with two or three shopping bags dangling from one hand, deep furrows carved in my brow and down my cheeks, and eyes that burned with a vacant ferocity I had long lost any contact with. I no longer bothered about the potentially feminised nature of what I did; now it was a question of getting the children to wherever we had to go, with no sit-down strikes or refusals to go any further or any other ideas they could dream up to thwart my wishes for an easy morning or afternoon.Once a crowd of Japanese tourist stopped on the other side of the street and pointed at me, as though I were the ringmaster of some circus parade or something. They pointed. There you can see a Scandinavian man! Look ,and tell your grandchildren what you saw!

There goes a Scandinavian man has become a catchphrase in our family !

Whilst Ferrante and Knausgaard have been the outstanding reads for me during 2014, I feel I must give an honourable mention to the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard who died in January 2014.

IMG_2411

The books follow the lives of the Cazalet family from just after WW1 through to 1958. Martin Amis has credited Howard,his step-mother, with encouraging him to read more seriously and become a writer.

I came to EJH late , only starting the series after reading her obituaries. Whilst I think it is fair to say that some volumes are stronger than others, I was swept up in the lives of the family, their hopes, love affairs and treacheries. Much social change is recorded too and I wished I had discovered the books earlier as they were a window into the world in which my parents grew up and gave me a greater understanding of some of their anxieties. I dreaded starting All Change as I knew that would finally be the end of a fantastic journey.

Happy New Year and happy reading in 2015 !

 

 

 

 

Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar

book_cover-3

 

A novel about the Bloomsbury Set presents some challenges but Priya Parmar has stepped up to the plate in her book to be published by Bloomsbury on 30th December 2014.

The cast of characters is large and shifting, made doubly confusing by their love of (multiple) nicknames for each other together with their habit of hopping in and out of each others beds with alarming regularity.

Parmar has chosen to look at the group through the prism of Vanessa and Virginia’s complicated relationship. The book spans the years 1905 (just after the death of their father) to 1911 and Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf.

The story is told by a series of fictionalised diary entries created by Vanessa as well as ‘ correspondence’ from her and other members of the set. It begins with the Stephens family’s move to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury and the start of the Thursday ‘at homes’ . Together with their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, the sisters preside over a household determined to kick at convention

Adrian was being pedantic and trying to persuade Virginia to change into evening clothes.

‘I do not see why I should wear a corset in my own drawing room,” said Virginia crossly. “You can breathe? Why shouldn’t I ?”

“Because you are a lady, Ginia,”Adrian repeated.

“And therefore not entitled to breathe?Since I do not need air, I will swim around the drawing room like a fish.The what will you do?”

Virginia’s logic.

Vanessa and Virginia’s relationship is tense. Virginia’s fragile health causes Vanessa to be ever watchful. Her sister’s moods can warn of an impending storm.

When Virginia is in a good mood, she enjoys hysterics. It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages the squall.

We follow the family through their travels and adventures however the central event in the novel is Vanessa’s courtship by and eventual marriage to the painter, Clive Bell.

Vanessa resists Clive at first only to marry him and become blissfully happy – for a short time. Her happiness is shattered by Clive’s infidelities,  first with her own sister and then with an ex-lover.

Apparently, I have misunderstood our marriage. He never thought we would be constricted by provincial fidelity. He never thought I would be so narrow minded, so Victorian, so unimaginative , as to confuse a marriage and a love affair. He never thought I would interrupt his personal freedom in this way.

Vanessa’s relationship with her sister is irrevocably altered. When Vanessa meets Roger Fry, the art critic who eventually became her lover, she warns her sister ,

No Virginia. You ruin. You ruin whatever you see coming between you and me. Roger is to my lover. He is my friend, but that hardly matters. We have a fragile, particular friendship, and you will destroy it if you can. As you destroyed my marriage. You cannot help yourself. You do not want something of your own. You want what is mine.”

I enjoyed this book immensely. At first it was a little difficult to follow who was who despite the list of characters which appears at the front. Things did eventual fall into place and telling the story through diary entries and letters did create the atmosphere surrounding the sisters, their acolytes  and of the times in which they lived.

Of course the story is ultimately tragic but there is a thread of humour running through it, particularly in Lytton Strachey’s correspondence with Leonard Woolf, then stationed in India. Strachey is constantly promoting the idea of Woolf marrying Virginia – hilariously he even prepares the ground by proposing to her himself only to have to somehow dissolve this disastrous engagement.

Behing it all stands the cpmplex but alluring Virginia, determined to write groundbreaking fiction

‘Why must a novel begin at the beginning? Who declares such a rule? Who defends it?” 

Vanessa And Her Sister is published by Bloomsbury on 30th December. My thanks to Netgalley for the proof.

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

IMG_2364

There is plenty of atmosphere in Jo Bloom’s novel set in London’s East End in the Summer of 1962.

Vivien Epstein , a young Jewish hairdresser, has left her hometown of Manchester after the death of her father and come to London in search of fame, fortune and Jack.

Jack ,a young Jewish journalist ,had visited Vivien’s father, Phil, shortly before his death to talk about Phil’s days as an organiser in the ’43Group’. Phil had been instrumental in  the group’s fight against Moseley and the fascists in the East End decades before. Jack, so Vivien was told, was researching for an article. Jack and Vivien had a brief but intense affair. Jack promised he would come back for her but has since fallen off the radar.

 

Viv gets a job at Oscar’s salon in Soho. The seedy world of Soho at this time with its prostitutes and strippers is lovingly recreated. The air is thick with the smell of hair lacquer and there are frequent references to the fashion styles and music of the time.

In fact the hit by Helen Shapiro, a young Jewish singer, became a bit of an ear worm for me when reading the book.

Vivian soon finds Jack but their relationship is fraught with danger. Jack is working undercover for the 62Group and has infiltrated the National Socialist Movement. The 62Group , like like their fore-runners, are Jewish activists working to defeat the fascists who are again openly campaigning on the streets of the East End.

Masquerading as a fascist, Jack is feeding back details of the NSM’s plans .He is finding the pressure unbearable but it is imperative that he doesn’t betray himself. The NSM are a group of violent thugs who openly boast of their hatred of Jews and Blacks.

Again, Bloom is expert at creating the atmosphere of fear and menace that surround the party. These passages read like a thriller and I found myself anxious to turn the page in order to find out what would happen next.

The NSM hold rallies and campaign meetings which the 62Group aim to disrupt. The violence of the fascists is sickening :

At the sound of a bottle smashing behind him, Stevie jumped, wanting to cry at the savagery of it all.When a cricket bat cut through the air close by and someone screamed, he knew it was time to run, but after a couple of steps ,a hand shot out of nowhere and punched him in the face.

“No, not me -” he shouted.

He tried to stay on his feet but his attacker hit him again.He cried out, expecting another punch, but it never came. Instead a big man with heavy cheeks took hold of his attacker’s arm, threw him to the ground and kicked him until he couldn’t get up. Then he disappeared back into the crowd.

Bloom explains at the end of the book that the NSM did exist and was on the rise in the 1960s ,led by the vile Colin Jordan. Similarly, the 62Group really was part of the Jewish community’s fightback to keep the fascist off their streets. The characters and events in the book whilst realistic are , of course, the product of Bloom’s imagination.

Ridley Road is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 11th December and has a wonderful cover – not that I would ever judge a book by that, of course !!

My thanks to Jo Bloom for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Getting Colder by Amanda Coe

book_cover-2

As we move into December, the title of this novel seems particularly apt.

Screen-writer Amanda Coe examines the fall out in an already fractured family after the death of the mother, Sara. Nigel and Louise, her children, are both grown up now with their own difficult families but 35 years earlier, Sara abandoned her children to live with Patrick, now an old man but at that time a fashionable playwright and darling of the Left.

In the aftermath of their mothers death , Nigel and Louise descend on the ramshackle cottage in Cornwall which Sara had shared with Patrick to pick over her possessions and also the reasons their mother left them all those years ago. Getting Colder is in fact the name of a hide-and-seek type game they used to play with their mother when they were children.

Both Nigel and Louise have been left damaged by their mother’s betrayal. Nigel’s years at boarding school have left him with an anxiety related digestive problem. Louise, dumped with a godmother as her carer, has constant feelings of unworthiness. Her neediness is spilling over into her relationship with her own two children. Patrick is an intensely unlikeable ,self-obsessed and self pitying bully and it is hard to see what Sara had ever seen in him.

“I’ll never forgiver her, you know. Leaving me like this.”

He meant Mum. Well, rampaging end-stage cancer was hardly running off with the milkman. Nigel pushed the sugar bowl his way appeasingly.

“Ashes,”said Patrick. “O God.” And to Nigel’s dismay, he wept. Nigel hated this, always had,the way Patrick detonated instantly into high emotion, winding you in the backdraft.

Into this heady mix comes Mia, an attractive young student apparently researching Patrick’s almost forgotten writing  but someone who has an agenda of her own.

“My cock doesn’t work,” he had told her, a few days into the blouse-button routine. ” Shut up shop years ago”

It had made everything more possible. Even at its most enjoyable, sex always made Mia feel she was missing the point of something other deployed to enhance their status by claiming to find it transformational – much like those who trumpeted their love of the theatre.Well, she was different, as usual. Her pleasure was mild enough when she fancied someone, like Jonathon; it would have been downright impossible with Patrick.

Each chapter of the novel is seen through the eyes of Nigel, Louise or Mia. Each episode is prefaced with an extract from notes, letters and cards written by Patrick and Sara over the years and through which the trajectory of their love affair and its consequences can be traced,

Given the subject matter this could be an extremely depressing read however Coe’s witty style saves the book from becoming gloomy. Here, a young Louise , who has recently been shown a sex education film in school, tries to work out why her mother has left her father for Patrick :

But Louise knew, unlike her friends that any or all of the improbable facts imparted about adult sexual behaviour had to be true. The weirdness must take place, because why else would Mum leave Dad, and them? Since nothing made sense, you had to believe in a compulsion you couldn’t understand. It was all because Mum wanted Patrick’s penis in her vagina. Dad’s penis wasn’t good enough for some reason.

The clue to the result of Nigel and Louise’s search is found in the quote from Ted Hughes which appears on the frontispiece  :

‘What happens in the heart simply happens’

A very enjoyable read and thank you to Ursula Doyle and Virago for the advance copy.

 

 

 

Me and Kaminski by Daniel Kehlmann trans Carol Brown Janeway

IMG_2341

Sebastian Zollner : is there a more unappealing narrator in the whole of literature? If there is, I haven’t been able to think who it is.

We first meet Kehlmann’s narrator and protagonist on a train journey and even though we don’t discover his name until p19 , his character becomes apparent pretty quickly. He is vain, rude, self-regarding and unkind ….  and this is a non exhaustive list. We also get a hint that he is physically unattractive as well following is aggressive confrontation with the train conductor.

But surely, I said, it’s the very least one can expect from a conductor. He wasn’t a conductor , he said, he was a train escort. I said I really didn’t care. He asked me what I meant. I said I really didn’t care what the job was called, it was superfluous anyway.He said he wasn’t going to let himself be insulted by me, I should watch out,he might just bust me in the chops.He could try, I said, I was going to file a complaint in any case, and I wanted his name. He wasn’t going to do any such thing, he said, and what’s more I stank and I was getting a bald spot. Then he turned and went away cursing.

I shut the door to the toilet and took a worried look in the mirror. Of course there was no bald spot; where on earth did that ape get an idea like that?

Zollner has been commissioned to write a biography of a once famous painter, Manuel Kaminski, or has he ? Nothing is quite what it seems in this supremely comic novel.

Kaminski was a protegé of Matisse, well sort of. After leaving Matisse, Kaminski returned to Paris and held a large exhibition of his work, that flopped. Kaminski was then struck blind and overnight his paintings became collectable and their value skyrocketed before he fell  back into obscurity.

Kehlmann has much fun with the pretensions of the worlds of art collection and criticism.

“Then Chromatic Light, the Walker, the street scenes. At first sight, fabulous. But not exactly subtle, thematically speaking.And let’s be honest if people didn’t know about him going blind…..” He shrugged.” You’ve seen the pictures themselves?”

I hesitated. I had thought about flying to New York, but it was quite expensive and beside – what were art books for? “Of course.”

Zollner foists himself on Kaminski ,now living a reclusive life in the care of his daughter. Oblivious to any hostility , Zollner then proceeds to sneak around Kaminski’s residence, studio and life before letting slip that Therese, the love of Kaminski’s life, is not dead as he believed her to be. Together Zollner and Kaminski embark on a fugitive road trip to allow Manuel to see her one last time before he dies.

Sebastian’s lack of self-knowledge is the mirror through which the world is reflected in the novel. What is the true value of art or love, what is the significance of memory are just some of the questions Kehlmann plays with here.

The words German and comic novel are, perhaps, not often juxtaposed but this is a very funny book cleverly constructed  and Zollner is an inspired creation.

This is my second and final review for German Lit Month. As usual, I had planned to read and blog more but real life got in the way. I have managed to track down a second hand copy of the Short Stories of Heinrich Böll, whose work I loved when I was studying German, and a read of Büddenbrooks is long overdue for me but hess are projects that will have to wait until 2015. I am definitely going to read some more Kehlmann as well.

 

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

IMG_2333

Crooked Heart tells the tale of Noel Bostock, twice abandoned and then evacuated in the mass exodus from London of September 1939, he finds himself billeted with Vera Sedge and her hapless son , Donald, in St Albans.

This book came as an unexpected pleasure to me. I had wondered what I might make of it. Instead it is a refreshingly light-hearted and warm hearted tale , very similar in atmosphere to The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day- Lewis.

Evans gives us a picture of wartime London not often acknowledged.One in which some men are actively trying to avoid being called up and are willing to pay to do so ; one in which bombed-out houses are ransacked for hidden valuables and air-raid wardens collude with the thieves.

It is hard to believe today how little attention was paid to the welfare of the child evacuees wrenched away from home and sent to live with strangers. No background checks were done on the hosts who were selected by the authorities on the grounds of perceived available bed space. Children were stood in a church or school hall to be chosen by the  hosts. Just like my father at that time, Noel finds himself unchosen at the end of the session and so is marched round to a local household and foisted on Vera. Luckily she is a much more benign guardian than the woman my poor Dad ended up with and together Noel and Vee embark on a series of adventures around the N London suburbs.

Evans captures entirely the bewilderment of a child like Noel. Already orphaned, he is removed from the care of his godmother , Mattie, as she descends into dementia only to be parachuted into a life with strangers. Although narrated, the story is seen through Noel’s eyes and therefore will probably appeal to the ‘ young adult’ market as well.

Noel stood by the side of the lane, next to Ada, and watched the billeting officer talk to the scrawny women in the headscarf. He was so tired that his eyes kept closing and then jerking open again, so that the scene jerked forward like a damaged film.

‘…..and you get ten and sixpence a week,’ he heard the billeting officer say.’ More if he’s a bed-wetter.’

She looks nice,’ said Ada hopefully. She had said this about every housewife they’d seen that day, and they’d probably seen a hundred. After a morning in the Mason’s Hall, during which the smaller and prettier children had been picked off, a crocodile of the plain and badly dressed had been marched from door to door in a widening spiral, gradually leaving the centre of the town behind.

India Knight has called Crooked Heart the best book she has read in 2014. I found it a welcome change to the usually downbeat atmosphere of modern fiction. I defy you not to have a tear in your eye by the end of it.

Crooked Heart is published by Doubleday. My thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.

 

In Times Of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge

FullSizeRender-5

9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and so it seemed fitting to review a book dealing with East Germany for German Lit Month.

In Times Of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (trans. Anthea Bell) is described in the blurb on the jacket as :’The intertwining of love, life and politics under the GDR regime’ and had been sitting on my TBR for some time.

The book spans the years 1953 to 2001and follows the fortunes of the Umnitzer/Powileit clan.In many respects it resembles Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in that it follows a family during a period of social and political upheaval and is built around the birthday celebrations of the patriarch Wilhelm. On 1st October 1989 Wilhelm is celebrating his 90th birthday. A large party has been arranged at which Wilhelm must not find out that his grandson has just fled to the West.

The family consists of Wilhelm Powileiter who is the second husband of Charlotte ; Charlotte’s son by her first marriage, Kurt, and his Russian wife, Irina, whose mother Nadyeshda Ivanova, has come to live with them. Finally we have Alexander (Sasha) and Markus, Kurt’s son and grandson.

Ostensibly Wilhelm is a successful man by GDR standards. A Party stalwart from the times of the Weimar Republic, he has served the Party in Russia and Mexico before returning to the ‘ new’ Germany in 1953. As the story unfolds, however, we discover that all is not as it seems.

The narrative doesn’t follow a conventional timeline. We hop backwards and forwards in time and switch from character to character, each giving their own point of view. This meant it took a while for me to be able to follow events. There is, helpfully, a list of characters at the start of the book and the style does have the effect of giving a panoramic view of life in the GDR and the aftermath of its break-up.

Wilhelm’s marriage to Charlotte is a sham, as is the myth of his service to the Party and state. Kurt’s own marriage to Irina is strained and built on half truths and things unspoken.Alexander has a difficult relationship with his parents and his own son, Markus.Markus, a young teenager in November 1989, finds life difficult in post-Wall Germany. Charlotte longs for her life in Mexico and is haunted by the fate of her brother under the Nazis and her other son, Werner, killed in Russia.

The secrets which bind the family together mirror the lies of the East German state, where history is constantly being twisted to suit the ruling party’s ends. Kurt reflects on the political speech given in Wilhelm’s honour :

Nothing in the address really corresponded to the facts, thought Kurt, still clapping; Wilhelm had not been a ‘founding member”of the Party (he was originally a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, and didn’t join the Communist Party of Germany until the two united), nor was it true that he had been wounded during the Kapp Putsch ( he had indeed been wounded but not in 1920 during the putsch, in 1921 during the so-called March action, a catastrophic failure, but of course that didn’t suit the biography of a class warrior so well). Worse than these little half-truths, however, was the large amount left out, worse was the egregious  silence about what Wilhelm was doing in the twenties. At the time – as Kurt remembered very well- Wilhelm had been a staunch champion of the United Front policy prescribed by the Soviet Union, which denigrated the Social Democrat leaders as “social fascists” and even presented them – by comparison to the Nazis- as the greater of two evils.

All this sounds very turgid and depressing however there are some great comic moments , not least the ‘ climax of Wilhelm’s birthday path. Irina’s mother , who has never managed to master German provides much humour too as she observes a people whose ways she cannot understand ;

Yes, of course she’d wanted to learn German when she came to Germany, she , she used to sit down and bone up on the German letters every day, but then, when she knew all the letters by heart, when she knew the entire German alphabet, she made an astounding discovery : she still didn’t know German. So then she gave up, it was pointless, such a difficult, mysterious language, the words scratched your throat like dry bread, Koontentak you said on meeting someone, good day, and Affeederseyn, until we meet again, on parting, or the other way round , AffeederseynKootentak, such a lot of trouble to take over just saying hello and goodbye. 

The novel is only 308pp long but covers a lot of ground. The book ends as it starts, with Alexander. There are no easy conclusions to be drawn but he does, at last, appear to have reached a sort of peace.

In Times Of Fading Light is published by Faber & Faber