For about the first 2/3rd of the book, I felt the author did not put a foot wrong. This was an absorbing, and beautifully written novel based on the Kindertransport, where Jewish children, with great difficulty, were weaved through impossible bureaucracy to safety, before Britain and Germany went to war, after the invasion of Poland. Simons writes most beautifully; he has a real flair for the surprising image – ‘ravens of guilt’, – without becoming self-consciously literary. He is excellent at the nuances of character, can evoke time and place brilliantly and precisely, and the narrative is good – for most of the time.
The evocation of the slowly gathering forces of fascism, and the inability to believe that the seriousness of its threats were real, were carefully and realistically handled, in this story of an upper-middle class, Jewish intelligentsia family, in Berlin. The feeling of despair and dislocation of the central character, Rosa, once she arrives in the UK as part of a Kindertransport group, is also beautifully and believably handled.
However (can’t say too much, in order to avoid spoilers) I felt that once the novel moves from the Norwich setting, and indeed the reason for that move, the story itself became more formulaic, and Simons began using coincidence upon coincidence in order to get a nice tidy ‘wrap’. The complexity and reality of his characters deserved a less predictable outcome, a greater ambiguity. Life has a habit of being untidy, unfinished. More could also have been made of the fact that German nationals – even escaped Jewish German nationals, were often suspected of being spies, and thus faced an even more desperate time as asylum seekers. This is certainly hinted at, but could have steeped a little more clearly into Rosa’s daily consciousness.
I felt some red-pencil work would have benefited the book, and prevented a bit of the rather drawn out sequence in the blackout, on the streets, whilst bombs were falling. The ending was always obvious, and its length unnecessarily contrived.
Simons, despite a faltering towards the end of the book, is certainly one to watch.