The past is another country : No Way Home
Marianne Wheelaghan, as some regular readers and commenters on this blog may realise, is a visitor and from time-to-time, a commenter, on here. She is also an author. Following a review of a book which had touched me quite deeply, around the subject of ‘displacement’ and never quite feeling at home in any country, Marianne made a comment which showed we had a certain connection – we are both the children of post-war immigrants. I had also visited Marianne’s blog, and read some posts she made about the search for home, and what home means, which spoke to me.
So, I had a sly little look at what kind of books she wrote, and discovered that the first one, The Blue Suitcase, was based around her mother’s life, growing up in Germany in the 30s. And I decided to investigate, a little nervously – I don’t review things by people I ‘know’ however ‘virtually’ – there’s a kind of curious intimacy which all writers reveal, but if you don’t ‘know’ them, outside their books, then everything they reveal, through their writing, consciously or unconsciously, is kind of ‘public domain’, whereas get to know an author, however tangentially, and it seems to me you can no longer read their works as if the book itself is all you are relating to
There is also, of course, the added problem – supposing you don’t like the book? Now, I only review on here, things I DO like, so it’s already a given, the review being here, that my viewpoint is positive – but potentially, perhaps stupidly, I had a kind of anxiety before reading – suppose I didn’t like it (and obviously, in that case, Marianne would never have known I had read it anyway, as I wouldn’t have reviewed it, whether on Amazon, or here, or even, mentioned that I had read it.) But, if that HAD been the case, I would have felt a kind of discomfort – how would my assessment of the work affect my assessment of the person who created the work. Writing is not separate from the life of the writer, and arises from the writer. as all ‘creativity’ does. So, after the preamble – which raises some interesting ideas, for me, about writers and their readers – the book:
Marianne Wheelaghan’s distressing, absorbing book about a young girl growing up in Germany in the 30’s was springboarded by her own family history, as that young girl was her mother. Marianne discovered a history her mother had never talked about, through journals she had kept, during the 30s and 40s, before she came to the UK after the war. She found the journals after her mother died and translated them
The Blue Suitcase is not ‘the translated diaries and journals’ – that would have been too private – but it is inspired by, based on, her reading of accounts of real events, and a real person, growing up at that time and in that place. The Blue Suitcase is of course a novel, but I sensed it was shaped by a writer, to give the feel and flow of fiction, but was not ‘an invention’
It was the complex, difficult authenticity it arose from which created a powerful response from me, as a reader. At times, too close for comfort, because the author herself must also have found the reading of the journals uncomfortable.
I must admit I put this book down, many times, overwhelmed by the imaginative, empathetic space which is created here. Starting in 1932, the journal writer is Antonia, Toni, a volatile self-obsessed twelve year old (as twelve year old often are), growing up in a dark time, a dark place, (Breslau, Silesia, 1932) Toni’s family is middle class; they are Catholics with a strong sense of morality – father a civil servant, mother a doctor. The entire family dynamics are strongly motivated by a sense of needing purpose and codes to live by which were more than just personal – the urge to serve something higher, clear. That ‘higher’ took one sister into being a ‘bride of Christ’ (a nun) one brother into Communism, another to join the Brownshirts, her law abiding conservative father, initially opposed to Hitler, keeping his head down and acquiescing, and her doctor mother, through her serving both her strong Christian faith and the Hippocratic oath, to be fierce and vocal against Fascism. Another sister surrendered into being the kind of hausfrau producing children for Germany.
Toni, through whose eyes we see everything is, at the start, at an age where she is all over the place in finding her own position within a family who clearly all took different positions driven by a sense of ‘greater good’. And I must say she both broke my heart repeatedly, and, made me laugh, (early on) simply by the normal adolescent stuff – the strong tempestuous passions – at some point in her diaries, she hates pretty well everyone in her immediate vicinity – not the orchestrated hatred which gets used by those who wish to foster division and violence against individuals – but the clear love and hatred volatility which children have. Young Toni, expressing this in her journal, made me laugh – whilst making me weep, because part of her ‘hatred’ came because she was being ignored because of everything which was developing in the wider world, as the National Socialists rose to power.
As the years roll on, and the terrible events associated with that time happen, both during the period before the war, during the war, and its aftermath, all times for lightness and laughter of course disappear. I began to think about a generation of young children growing up inside a system designed to force them out of humanity, as any totalitarian society, any society with rigidity and implacability as its core values does.
This book spoke strongly to me , for several reasons. – Firstly I am always fascinated by ‘through a child’s eye’ writing. It is the very changeability, the not yet fixed, restrained, masked, constructed quality to persona which intrigues. As someone long beyond that stage, I nevertheless can recognise the authenticity of writing which successfully comes from that place – or doesn’t. This does. My emotion was also of course, personal, in that I too have a family background which comes from Central Europe.
I’m also always interested in writing which touches on the sense of being displaced, and also that insidious thing called ‘survivor guilt’, and how the locking up of a terrible time so that it cannot be spoken of, still reaches down the generations. Not just those who lived through those times, but the children who were born into the post-war world, and absorbed this secrecy, this guilt, this displacement into their fabric, and passed their melancholy longing for something they couldn’t quite name, onwards. Both within my own family, and in the families of others with a similar history-of-time-and-place there is a particular privacy, a particular silence, more deep than the purely personal ‘skeletons in cupboards’ which I think every life tags along with it. There’s a kind of void too deep, too dark to enter. This is I think particular to those who have been engaged in war and conflict. Those of us born and living in safe societies in peace time cannot, I think, really comprehend that other place. We are fortunate.
I believe part of my need to stay connected to such stories is a working out of my own sorrow and compassion for ancestors I never met. For some, revisiting that past seems perhaps maudlin, or self-indulgent. For those, like me, who think these stories need telling – all our stories, and rather wish it were NOT the case that the stories should be told – the silencing of the stories would be a denial. I very much valued this, sharing the story of ‘ordinary Germans who were not Jews’ in that time. We all have a tendency to say this or that grouping of people are bad, this or that grouping are good – or even, make moral judgements on individuals – the good brother became a Communist, the bad brother joined the Brownshirts. But, from my comfortable, safe armchair in 2015, I am not pressurised and vulnerable to any kind of radicalisation – I am an adult, more fixed now in my beliefs, less needing of ‘peer approval’ than I was at that vulnerable teen-age.
There is a tipping point, where those peddling unthinkable prejudice seem stupid, risible, and not worthy of any serious consideration or resistance, because they are so clearly dismissed. That’s the point where they are the powerless minority. And then, if they are not taken seriously by the more rational and sensible, there may come a time when the rational and the sensible find that they are the powerless ones. This book shows how some of all that plays out in all of us ‘ordinary people’.
I recommend this, though it is a difficult and painful read, because of its subject matter. Wheelaghan’s book reminds us that in the end, there is only a common humanity, and that the accident of being born in specific times and places exerts pressures and forces on individuals, sometimes way beyond what humanity can suffer, without breaking and damage.
Those of us lucky enough to be born in less demanding times, less demanding places, may not always realise how lucky we are, never to have had our own humanity challenged beyond its breaking point.
In many ways, this is as much an account of this reader, and her response to this book, as it is about the book itself. I tried, I really tried, to hold a position as a kind of observing, dispassionate reader, to be able to make some kind of assessing of the writing, the story, the narrative, to do the comparisons to this or that other writer. But, in the end, the ‘about’ of the book, and the personal place from which it came from for the author, and the personal place from which I read it, as a reader, precluded that kind of distance.
So I can’t offer the kind of analysis which might help any other potential reader know if it’s a book which they will want to read, and whether the ‘authorial voice’ will speak to them, and whether the style will be real for you, or not. It clearly all was so for me.
Go take a look inside, as we can happily do, on the Amazons, and make your own decisions! But as you will see, the reviews (pretty well all very positive) seem to suggest that the powerful effects felt by me, were also experienced by others. And if some of the criteria for ‘good writing’ IS that we are engaged, involved, made to think, to care, and perhaps, even to be transformed or extended in some way, then The Blue Suitcase seems to have done all of that for other readers too.