1985 was not a good year to live in The German Democratic Republic. While the country was still in the grip of an oppressive communist government, the wealth and freedoms of the west were becoming ever more visible thanks to the population’s exposure to western radio and television. Only the most loyal communists could continue the pretence that the government of Eric Honecker was leading the country to prosperity and economic equivalence with the west. Citizens needed a rare type of party commitment to ask with any degree of sincerity, “why would you want more than three brands of shampoo in the shops?” when packages from the west contained unheard of bounty.
The book is the story of Magda and Robert, two young people from both sides of the almost unbreachable political divide of West and East.
After a period of rebellion against her government, Magda has seen that there is no future in resisting the powerful state with it’s STASI secret police and it’s control of all job opportunities. She is now training to be an official translator while continuing friendships with her old crowd of radicals and planning for the day when she will be able to flee to the West.
Over in Scotland, Robert is writing a thesis on Heinrich Heine and wondering whether to study iu West or East Germany. Although the Heine archive is in Dusseldorf, his application to study there gets lost by a drunk lecturer and he instead gets offered a student exchange in Leipzig in the communist East.
A communist-leaning lecturer, John Bull-Halifax asks Robert to take with him four pairs of Levi jeans for Magda, a contact from a previous visit. Once in Leipzig, Robert arranges to meet Magda in a train station bar and is immediately struck by her beauty. He hands over the jeans and Magda invites him to a friend’s 30th birthday party, poor Robert begins a relationship which will induct him into the smoke and mirrors world of East Germany, where nothing is as it seems and informing and intrigue bedevil every relationship.
The book alternates chapters in the voices of Robert and Magda. In this way we learn that Robert can have no comprehension of the complexity of Magda’s life. Her brother was an athlete who was poisoned by his trainer through the over-use of steroids. This has affected Magda’s whole attitude to her nation and it is only through her well-connected father that she has been able to get a job as a trainee translator. She seems unable to see Robert as a person in his own right, but only as “the Westerner”, someone who can be used to advance her own plans for escape. Robert’s naivety leads him to think that his relationship with Magda is just what it seems, but who is Magda’s friend Marek who has such a hold on her? Is he mentor, ex-lover or maybe something more sinister?
Marek was smug, conceited, snide, bitchy and deceitful. He was also charming, good-looking, insightful and far cleverer that I would ever be. . . . but mainly I didn’t like him because he was always there, lurking in the background – and sometimes it seemed, cavorting in the foreground. I that paranoid little state, he had one rare quality that inspired both admiration and envy: he appeared to be free. He didn’t kowtow to anyone; he didn’t care what anybody thought. It was a dangerous way to be, but he somehow got away with it.
Leipzig today (Wikimedia)
The Marek/Magda.Robert story works its way through Part 1 of the book and then in Part 2, we move forward a few years. In 1989 the communist state collapsed and reunification has occurred. Much has happened in Robert’s life since he returned to Britain, but Magda has endured far more. Somehow picking herself up she has reinvented herself, while Robert seems to have made a wreck of his life and starts thinking of her once again.
These are the bare bones of the story but there is far more to it than this. The book is expertly written and seems to me to be a very comprehensive picture of what it was like to live in the East German state. Fiona Rintoul’s knowledge of East Germany was gained by visiting the country and meeting a woman who had been imprisoned and also looking at extracts of STASI files on people she met.
The book is far more than a novel. It is steeped in the atmosphere of the GDR and the alternating Robert/Magda chapters emphasise the huge cultural differences between those who live in a democracy and those who suffered under communism. More than that, it shows how living under the State colours the lives of its citizens to this day. Somehow, life under a reunified Germany, with its financial prosperity and a free vote, fails to quite meet the almost spiritual aspiration for freedom under socialism which obsessed the dissidents of the old East. As Magda puts it towards the end of the book,
How might you have felt then if you’d known what was to come? People talk now about reunification as though it were a victory. They listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with tears in their eyes. But the truth is that for people like you, the people who fought for democratic socialism in East Germany, it was a defeat.
Fiona Rintoul is to be congratulated on her debut novel which held me enthralled for two or three days and plunged me into the world of the old German Democratic Republic and reminds me of how crippling to the human spirit a life under Communism must have been.
Note to publishers: I didn’t like the font used in the typesetting of this book and it took me a while to get used to it. When it was in italics, as extensively in the Prologue, it was very difficult to read and almost made me give up on the book. Perhaps it’s the printing at fault, but the fine verticals on a, e, v etc, almost seemed to disappear. Why spoil a good book with near-illegibility problems?
I have read quite a few books based in Brighton from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to the police procedural thrillers of Peter James. Robert Dickinson presented a dystopian vision of a Brighton of the future in which social order had disintegrated (The Noise of Strangers), and Robert Rankin described a Brighton Zodiac with carriageway constellations criss-crossing the city (The Brightonomicon). I now have another fine novel to add to my Brighton collection – Piano from a 4th Storey Window by Jenny Morton Potts (buy paperback or Kindle) which while being full of local colour and locations, also offers the story of a full-blown, head-over-heels romance with highs and lows both heavenly and hellish along the way.
Marin Strang is a Spanish teacher who’s life hasn’t quite worked out as she expected, leaving her single and existing on temporary teaching contracts, rootless and at a loose end for much of her time. Marin was brought up in a family of strict Jehovah’s Witnesses but one which mixed adherence to religion with real relationship difficulties which blight her to this day. She has been “dis-fellowshipped” by the JWs but has the remnants of a relationship with her ageing father who remains a loyal member.
“Marin’s childhood was the ideal preparation for solitude, finding her membership of the sect separating her from her natural friends at school. She developed,
– an isolation to shield her from occasional major hurt. Or an isolation which drip fed daily minor hurt. She’d had so much practice at being on her own, she should manage it with ease.
Following a painful breakup from her last boyfriend, Marin finds herself wandering around The Lanes in Brighton (a quaint shopping area famed for its boutiques and quirky shops). She stops for a coffee at a café called Number 8 and catches a glimpse of an enticing social melée revolving around the café, particularly when she sees and hears Lawrence Fyre, a tall, unkempt, but charismatic individual who owns Sargasso Books in The Lanes.
Mr Tall’s tawny hair draped across his shoulders and sharp bones were poking at his clothes. His shirt, well, capacious, was the kindest description and it was almost white but there was a suggestion in the (crushed) fabric that it may have been a vivid colour once, decades back. With his back to her, she could comment internally no further but she heard herself say very quietly, ‘Turn round. Just turn around. Go on.’ This, you can enunciate without moving your teeth. Click here to continue reading Review: Piano from a 4th Storey Window – Jenny Morton Potts
I enjoyed reading this unusual book, The Betrayers, which charts a few days in the life of senior Israeli politician Baruch Kotler as he travels to Yalta to escape press coverage of his extra-marital affair. Along the way we pick up on Baruch’s intriguing back-story as a Soviet dissident, and also meet the man who denounced him to the authorities many years ago in Russia.
David Bezmozgis was born in Latvia but brought up in Canada, where, after publishing a successful collection of short stories, he published his first novel, The Free World about a group of Russian/Jewish refugees who settle in Italy. In The Betrayers, Bezmozgis writes about Israeli Cabinet Minister Baruch Kotler who wishes to resign his post in protest at the Israeli clearance of West Bank settlements (based on real-life events from 2005).
Baruch is a Russian émigré to Israel, with a long history of protest against the regime, which earned him 13 years in a Soviet prison camp. Even then he was a stubborn prisoner at one point being so infuriated about interference with his mail that he went on hunger strike and had to be force-fed by tubes.
The book opens with Baruch and his young lover Leora arriving in the resort town of Yalta in the Ukraine, having fled Israel because of an encroaching scandal. A day or two earlier, Baruch was called to an evening meeting in a park with a government agent. The agent tells him that he must withdraw his objections to government policy towards the settlements. Baruch, with a stubbornness born of resistance to Soviet power, refuses to change his views whereupon the agent produces an envelope of photographs which Baruch refuses to even open, but assumes reveal intimate moments between himself and Leora. He leaves the park, picks up his girl-friend and together they leave the country on a flight to the Ukraine.
In Yalta, the hotel the couple intended to stay in is full and so by a long chain of coincidences they end up staying in a guest-house owned by the wife of Vladimir Tankilevich, the very person who denounced Baruch back in Soviet Russia, leading to his incarceration.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Betrayers – David Bezmozgis
Marilynne Robinson came to fame with her novel Gilead in which an elderly small-town Congregational Minister John Ames reflects on his own life and the lives of his immediate family, particularly his second wife Lila and his seven year old son. In her second book Home, Robinson write about the family of John Ames best friend Robert Boughton, focusing on his son Jack, the black-sheep of the family who’s reappearance after a break of several years resurrects a whole series of conflict within the family.
Lila is the third book in the series and returns to focus on a period a few years before Gilead, when a homeless woman comes to lives in a broken-down shack on the edge of Gilead and slowly starts to impact the community, eventually marrying John Ames, despite his great age.
This book, like the others, is extremely well-written and it is immediately obvious that Robinson has taken great care with every sentence, convincingly writing in the “voice” of Lila for much of the book but also bringing out the dignity and maturity of John Ames whenever he becomes the focus of the story.
Lila was abandoned by her mother as a very young child and was brought up by an itinerant woman called Doll, who found the four-year old child living a precarious life on the steps of a rough-and-ready bar. Doll picks up the child and runs off with her, cuddling her in her shawl and finds an elderly lady who takes both Doll and Lila in for a while as they try to clean up the semi-savage child.
As we read of Lila, now an adult woman living in the shack in Gilead, the book keeps flashing back to lengthy passages in which we read Lila’s story. Doll cared for Lila throughout her childhood and youth. Times were extremely hard and for much of the time they joined up with a small gang of itinerant workers who took on the most menial jobs on farmsteads in return for a few coins or perhaps for a few meals of potatoes and corn.
Click here to continue reading Review: Lila – Marilynne Robinson
Back in 2002 Michel Faber published a novel called The Crimson Petal and the White which Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian called “a supremely literary novel” and “dizzyingly accomplished” – a description which I totally agreed with. Looking back on this superb book I still feel it would be up in my top ten ever list (if I had such a thing). Since then I have been waiting for Michel Faber to write another book of equal quality and my hopes were raised when The Book of Strange New Things was published this summer. At 592 pages, it looked reassuringly long and the subject seemed sufficiently unusual for me to expect something really special here. I will tell you at the end of this review whether I found it.
First the story, which can’t be better summarise than in the publisher’s description from the cover: “Peter Leigh is a missionary called to go on the journey of a lifetime. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Bea, he boards a flight for a remote and unfamiliar land, a place where the locals are hungry for the teachings of the Bible – his ‘book of strange new things’. It is a quest that will challenge Peter’s beliefs, his understanding of the limits of the human body and, most of all, his love for Bea”.
It would seem that a vast and mysterious commercial company called UCIS have managed to colonise a remote planet. It is so remote that visitors to the planet have to be put into a state of suspended animation while travelling on the space-ship. When they arrive and are brought round, they find themselves in a bland, shopping-mall style building with a very relaxed community of engineers, scientists and medics, all of whom have been selected for having little to lose by spending large parts of their lives in this remote location.
Peter, a highly committed Christian, has been selected to travel to the planet because the planet has other inhabitants who require his services as a pastor. These are strange near-humanoid creatures (Peter names them the Oaseans from the word Oasis) who interact with the human colony by providing food in exchange for pharmaceutical drugs (quite what they do with them is never fully explained). A proportion of these creatures have been converted to Christianity by a previous human visitor but following his disappearance, the Oaseans threaten to withdraw the food supplies from the human colony unless they are supplied with another Christian teacher.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
I have never read anything by Bernardine Bishop before but was drawn to Hidden Knowledge by reading a review of it in the Sunday Times and then by the five star reviews on Amazon (which I have been pleased to add to). Although clerical abuse features in the book, I wouldn’t say that it’s the only theme and I was reminded of William Nicholson’s books (The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, All the Hopeful Lovers and The Golden Hour) in the way it focuses on a small community of people and explores the often complex relationships between them.
We have two groups of people here. Romola Tree has two brothers. One brother, Hereward, is a successful author and has a much younger female partner Carina, an Italian 22 year-old woman of considerable charm. For much of the book, Hereward lies in a coma after a complex heart operation. The other brother, Father Roger Tree, is suspended from the priesthood and is in trouble with the law, having had a complaint about him abusing a young boy many years ago. Roger comes to live with his sister Romola while awaiting trial and we read much about his back story and what led him to the place he finds himself in now.
The other group of people centres around another abused boy and his mother Betty and and sister Julia. Ten year old Mark drowned while on a school trip twenty years before despite an attempt to rescue him by Father Roger Tree who was school chaplain at the time. Betty has had much to deal with in her life and is now coming to terms with widowhood. Daughter Julia has challenges of her own, being conscious of the ticking away of her biological clock despite her successful career in medicine.
Together, these characters provide Bernardine Bishop with plenty of scope for a rich and complex human drama. The pace is slow, but the story unfolds in a very satisfying way and I found myself being drawn through the pages quickly, and wanting to get back to the book whenever I put it down. As a male reader, I found much of the story rather female oriented, but the quality of the writing transcends gender issues. The best women writers can write about men as well as any male (Jane Gardam for example), and likewise for good male writers when writing about women.
Click here to continue reading Review: Hidden Knowledge – Bernardine Bishop
I thought I wouldn’t be able to stay away from writing about books for long and it only took a fine novel like The Paying Guests to start putting fingers to keyboard again.
Let me say at the start, there are no spoilers in this review.
After reading a few “so-so” books I found myself wanting to bury myself in some really good writing and recover that feeling of being swept along by a novel, resenting the time I have to spend away from it. I have always enjoyed reading Sarah Waters before (Fingersmith, The Little Stranger etc) for her complex plotting and rich characterisation and so when The Paying Guests came out I decided to try a sample chapter on the Kindle. Within a few minutes or reading I had made the purchase of the full novel and can only say that this is a terrific read, deeply absorbing and rich in atmosphere and insights into the human condition.
As the book opens we find ourselves a very few years after the First World War in a suburb of South London. Frances Wray and her mother live in a big old house which has become too expensive for them to run. Mr Wray has died of a heart-attack leaving only debts and disorder. Frances describes him as “a nuisance when he was alive, he made a nuisance of himself by dying and he’s managed to go on being a nuisance ever since”. Frances’s two brothers were both killed in the War and so the only option for the two women seems to take in “lodgers”, or as the prefer to call them, “paying guests” – a more genteel description to early 20th century sensibilities.
The paying guests arrive in the form of a young married couple, Mr and Mrs Barber (Lilian and Leonard, but what a long time it takes for everybody to get onto first-name terms!). Sarah Waters’ description of the first few days of adaptation is written with an artist’s hand – Frances and her mother find it difficult to share their home with these two strangers with their mysterious noises and comings and goings. They feel that the house is no longer their own (which it isn’t) and even their own space is invaded throughout the day because the Barbers have to go through their kitchen to get to the outside toilet (how easily we forget what life was like for most people a mere 100 years ago). Furthermore, Mr Barber has an extremely annoying habit of stopping to chat with Frances Wray while she is working in the kitchen – his easy familiarity grates with her desire for distance and a more formal relationship with her lodgers.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
We went to Monk’s House yesterday, the Sussex home of Virginia Woolf. I’m not a great fan of Woolf’s writings but the house is not far from us, and it was such a beautiful May morning we decided to go across and look at the cottage set in its gorgeous gardens.
In one of her diary entries, Woolf wrote about Monk’s House,
Back from a good week at Rodmell – a weekend of no talking, sinking into deep safe book-reading; & then sleep: clear transparent; with the may tree like a breaking wave outside; & all the garden green tunnels, mounds of green; & then to wake into the hot still day, & never a person to be seen, never an interruption; the place to ourselves; the long hours. DIARIES 1932
In those days, you had to go down a rutted cart-track to get to the house, a path beyond leading to the famous water-meadows where Virginia met her death by flinging herself into the slow-moving but deep River Ouse. It shows the depth of depression she must have experienced, for the surrounding countryside and nearby coast with its chalk cliffs is spectacularly beautiful and (you might think) would refresh any soul.
Click here to continue reading Monk’s House – Sussex home of Virginia Woolf
And what do we have here? The first novel in a crime series by a new French writer, Jean-Luc Bannalec? Well, not quite, for most literary journalists are agreed that M Bannelec is in fact Jörg Bong, a top German publisher who has been doing a bit of moon-lighting by creating the somewhat grumpy police detective Commissaire Dupin. One thing for sure, Bannalec/Bong has scored a hit across Europe with Death in Pont-Aven and any fan of Inspector Maigret will find Dupin a worthy successor to Georges Simenon’s fictional detective. There are even back references to Maigret for the book opens with Commissaire Dupin enjoying coffee and croissants in the Amiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s Yellow Dog (interestingly enough, a real restaurant in Concarneau, which to this day features a “Maigret Menu“).
I spent four very pleasant days reading this book, with memories of several visits to Brittany, the scene of this fictional crime. Brittany is a remarkable place, steeped in atmosphere with incredible beauty around every coastal corner. The pretty villages, white-sanded coves, the off-shore islands and countless fishing boats, the exquisite sea-food and tons of typical French charm . . . I could go on, but it’s enough to say that it’s a region I love and this book put me in a holiday mood despite the vicious murder of a 91-year-old man that took place in its first few pages.
The elderly hotelier found dead from a knife wound on his restaurant floor is Pierre-Louis Pennec, a stalwart of the village of Pont-Aven where he has lived all his life in the hotel founded by his grand-parents. His grand-mother founded the hotel and with her generous hospitality rapidly befriended various painters including Paul Gauguin. Summer artists retreats took place in the village and before long, the Pont-Aven school of artists, became known for their paintings of Breton interiors and landscapes, packed full of local atmosphere.
Click here to continue reading Review: Death in Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec
So, it’s today’s Germany, and Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up early one afternoon on a patch of undeveloped land.
It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire, there seemed to be no shelling nearby or explosions, no air-raid sirens. It also struck me that there was no Reich Chancellery and no Führerbunker.
In full dress-uniform, but reeking of petrol, Adolf Hitler gets up and makes his way across the road to a newspaper kiosk. He glances at the dates on the newspapers and when he sees the year 2011 he collapses to the ground.
So begins Timur Vermes book, Look Who’s Back, the first German novel to look at Adolf Hitler from a humorous perspective. And I have to say, it has been very well-received (if rather uneasily) and looks like it’s going to be turned into a film later this year despite the controversial subject matter.
On waking from his years of oblivion, Hitler wander across to a newspaper stall and begins to acquaint himself with today’s Germany. It is not a comfortable process and Hitler rapidly comes to the conclusion that the nation is as much in need of a Führer as before. But with no money in his pockets and an utterly changed landscape, the thought comes to him:
I needed a livelihood, however modest or basic. I needed somewhere to stay and a little money until I had a clearer perspective. Perhaps I needed to find a job, temporarily at least, until I knew whether and how I might be able to seize the reins of government.
Click here to continue reading Review: Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes