Before I write about The German Boy I'm afraid I need to digress and check out a few things first because, though I definitely read Patricia Wastvedt's first Orange longlisted novel The River, I haven't written about it here, which means it must have been pre-dovegreyreader, pre-2006, so I have forgiven myself for not remembering too much about it. In fact it was July 2005 and Patricia was then Tricia, and getting the book off the shelf (it was good...a keeper) I see that I had meticulously noted inside that I bought it in Daunt's, London on May 12th 2005.
So now another diversion because what on earth was I doing in London on May 12th 2005, cue the reading journal for any clues.
Well who'd have thought it... I was recording a session for Open Book with Marielle Frostrup having penned off an irate sunday afternoon e mail to the programme over a rather unbalanced slating of the whole HenLit / Transita books debate. Some may recall Transita, the publisher who decided to challenge the supremacy of chicklit with some fiction geared towards women of a certain age. I was fine with the whole idea...why ever not, but I was more irate over the biased discussion on Open Book
Good said the BBC...would you read six in a week and come on the programme and talk about them...which I did.
'Billed as a book that would do Du Maurier proud meant that I spent the entire book waiting for it and trying to figure just how horrific it could possibly be.
Anna, pregnant arrives in the village of Cameldip in Devon where she decides to settle and is immediately taken in by the mysterious but seemingly pleasant Isabel. The book stretches the idea of the non-linear narrative to its limits and this reader had to backtrack to get her bearings. A gripping book and one I read far too fast 4*'
In fact now I do remember...a double drowning tragedy thirty years earlier, both Isabel's children lost so when Anna arrives there is a barely concealed wound of grief and heartbreak ready to be rent asunder and the arrival of Anna's baby seems likely to do it....and it's obvious why I needed a blog now I look at that journal.
So finally to The German Boy and oblivious to all the above I jotted down in my marginalia details of the 'clever structure' ...of the pre-knowledge before the event which leads a reader along a trail of supposition before what actually happened is revealed. An assumption is forced out of the reader only for it to be dispelled and judgements confounded (remember George Eliot and her 'Why always Dorothea' moment, this reader manipulation was her forte) as Patricia Wastvedt's plot twists and turns and played with this reader yet again, and in a style that felt beautifully paced and seemed to somehow mirror real time lapses.
The book opens in 1947 as Stefan, Elisabeth's teenage nephew, the son of her English sister and her German husband, arrives in England in his Hitler Youth uniform as a war orphan. By the time you reach the end of the book it is only a little later that same year but on the way Patricia Wastvedt has taken her narrative back 1927, working her way to and fro through the history of the family, the loves, the losses, the relationships and all those deliciously painful lies and secrets; the skeletons in cupboards that make a book like this so enticing.
I've clearly moved on with my reading because I love the non-linear narrative these days, a book that makes me work to figure out what's happening, and I like it even more if the writer has that sleight of pen that produces exquisite sentences, and time again I had to pause and take in this writing ...
'The perfume of the earth fills his head with lamentations...
'...the wind had flattened out the creases in his heart...'
' ... the heart is slow to know itself...'
No plot because I don't want to spoil the experience but there will be Nazis, there will be the heartbreak of children, the aftermath of war in Dresden, prejudice and anti-semitic brutality, art, the passion of a brief encounter, and above all there will be the impossibility of unknowing a memory, as well as quite unexpectedly one child's grief for a past that was lost, a past that should have been but wasn't.
Much of the book is set around Dungeness and I loved the imagery that the pre-nuclear power station location conjured in my mind, miles of unforgiving shingle with Romney Marsh sheltered behind it, the tides and the turmoil that had been Hitler's Germany just across the Channel. Now an RSPB sanctuary and the location of the famous Prospect Cottage, one time home of film director Derek Jarman.
There are also several handy long arm of coincidence moments in the novel that assist the progress of the plot, and like most people I am no stranger to them in real life, but in a previous life I may have been cynical about these chance meetings in fiction. Well cynical no more after our last trip to London when, having rounded the corner into Trafalgar Square on the Sunday morning we bumped headlong into our neighbours from the village two miles away who we don't see for months on end here in Devon.
So my apologies if I have made The German Boy sound a little ambiguous and I can't say more without giving away too much, but if you read this one I do hope it all slowly shapes and descends on you as it did on me. I don't think you'll be disappointed and this might be yet another one for some 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction speculation.