Bart Van Es’, account of what happened in the Netherlands, during the Second World War, is both a history of Holland which sits rather uneasily with most of our perceptions (certainly mine) of a country which is liberal, tolerant, and moved by notions of fairness, and a personal history of his own family, during that time.
Most of all, it is the history of Hesseline (Lien) de Jong. Lien, a young Jewish girl, was part of a generation of more fortunate Jewish children who were secretly fostered by those involved in the Resistance and otherwise opposed to the occupying Nazi forces.
Lien and others ‘more fortunate’ because, of course, many were swept up and became part of the monstrous death toll of the Holocaust.
I was extremely shocked to discover that, the percentage of Holland’s Jews, who ended their days in the extermination camps, was particularly high, compared to those from other occupied countries. The Netherlands had certainly been a liberal haven, compared to many other European nations, in its attitudes towards its Jewish citizens at a much earlier time in history.
The Jewish wartime death rate in the Netherlands, at 80%, was almost double that of any other Western country, far higher than that in France, Belgium, Italy or even Germany and Austria themselves. For me, vaguely brought up on a myth of Dutch resistance, this comes as a shock
Although the reasons for this high percentage was complex, Van Es does not flinch from concluding that ‘ the active participation of Dutch citizens – who also did the work of informing on neighbours, arrest, imprisonment and transportation – also played a significant part’
Van Es’ own family, his grandfather and grandmother, politically active on the left, were part of the network which fostered Jewish children, either hidden in plain sight as part of their own family, or hidden more literally. It was to this family that young Lien, not quite 9, is initially fostered after her own family send her away for safety via the well-organised network organising this secret fostering. All of her closest relatives, and most of her extended family will not survive.
Lien regarded her first foster family as the golden ones, of those years. Again and again she was moved on to other, less happy fosterings, because discovery was imminent. Some of the places were horrific, and though children were being fostered by those who wanted to keep these children safe, human psychology being the complex thing it is, not everyone was altruistic, compassionate and caring. And the severely traumatised have their own challenges, as traumatic events make ‘normal socialisation’ challenging. Over a succession of foster homes, some, frankly with people who should not have been in care of vulnerable children at all, Lien is clearly dissociating, and blocking out experiences too painful to engage with.
After the war, she eventually returns to her first foster family, with whom she had a fairly close relationship, – though challenges are certainly present – until she completes her education, and begins to make her own way and vocation – working with vulnerable children. Later she marries and has children of her own. At some point, – and this is no spoiler, as it is part of the journey Van Es is exploring, a terrible, unhealable rift develops between Lien and her foster mother and father (Van Es’s grandparents)
In essence, the journey of Van Es’ book, though painful, is a journey towards some kind of redemption and understanding, as he seeks to understand the history of his family, and his country, through historical research – and through conversations with Lien, now in her eighties. There is a slow growing of a sense of ‘family’ between Van Es, and Lien. Van Es’ father Henk, had been born just after Lien’s return to the van Esses, after the war, aged 12.
Bart van Es writes engagingly, simply, clearly. Although this is Lien’s story it is also the writer’s; change and transformation happens for each.
And, as Lien says, in the opening sentence of the book:
‘Without families you don’t get stories’
The conversations between the two, Lien’s personal memories, the artefacts, letters and photographs which stimulate them, and the geographical research which Bart van Es undertakes, visiting places from Lien’s story, fleshes out a story which is both personal, and of time and place. In visiting places in our times, Bart van Es also reminds us of parallels we may not particularly wish to engage with, on the lessons of history which unfortunately seem not to have been fully learned
I had very much enjoyed Rory Clements first ‘Tom Wilde’, Corpus, with my pull-back from 5 star happening, as it often does in books where there has to be some physical action , simply because there is often a tendency to overdo whatever version of the fisticuffs – be it by club and spear, or by state of the art high velocity rifle – is going to happen
I’m a bit of a realist as far as injuries to flesh, blood and bone and the like are concerned, and begin to sigh in disbelief when our hero, pumping out blood from an almost severed leg, half blinded by an arrow in his eye, and with a spear thrust just deflected from the heart by a lucky locket bearing a picture of his true-love, none the less abseils down the Eiffel tower, holds on underneath a car giving chase to the baddies and manages to roll away from danger as the car he is hanging underneath is shot in the tyres and rolls over a conveniently placed cliff edge.
The intelligent, twisty turny first book, set in 1936 as war was looking like being on its way, against the background of Edward VIIIth’s possible/probable abdication, and politics polarising to the left and right, had gripped me hard – until the protracted action sequences happened, as the tale reached its denouement and the likeable, interesting academic Tom Wilde mounted his trusty steed (motorbike) and set out on his dangerous and chivalric mission, slaying dragons and the like
Nuclear fission for beginners
I had been quite gripped enough though to jump at the chance to see where Clements would go in Book 2, set in 1939, Nucleus – into the race to develop the atomic bomb, that’s where, and a plot even more complicated by other issues happening, – what should Ireland’s attitude be to war, – is my enemy’s enemy my friend? – but what about the nature of my enemy’s enemy – does that not preclude any friendship? There are, of course, those on the Home Front who have sympathies with the totalitarian right, because it might be a bulwark against the totalitarian left. What should America do? And what about scientists who have defected from Germany – can they all be trusted?
The Old Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, Wiki Commons
Some of the complex characters and polarised relationships from the first book re-appear here. It would not be necessary to have read that first book in order to enjoy this, but I’m glad I had, for deeper appreciation – particularly of enigmatic Philip Eaton who had appeared in the murder investigation Wilde got drawn into in the first book. Wilde was never quite sure about Eaton, so we are also wondering about him……
Wilde, not a bed-hopping Lothario had had nonetheless an ‘interest’ in the fiercely independent, intelligent Lydia Morris, in that first book. Clements wisely had kept torrid accounts of anything which might happen between the two, at bay. Here, 3 years later, we discover that Wilde and Morris have become an item, though at the moment there is a kind of estrangement of intention, or at least, an estrangement in priorities between them. Its rather grown-up stuff, all down to the priorities which might be demanded of an individual, caught up in world events. Also returning, and with a deepening relationship is Wilde’s rather shambly old Professorial colleague, Horace Dill.
Wilde has recently returned from visiting his elderly mother, back in the States…and, whilst there, has had some rather surprising meetings, with the great and the good, anxious to get more information about what might best serve America’s interests. Demands are made of Tom – so he too is aware that different countries, different classes, different ideological positions – even between those ultimately on the same side, are quite complex
So…….how did this compare to Corpus. I was very pleased indeed that the implausible action man stuff had been reined back. Yes, there is still some of it – popular page turning may well expect it, and there is also a rather treacherous and beautiful woman who makes a play for Wilde. Who, whatever the challenges in his relationship with Lydia, is a principled man and loves her. The treacherous and beautiful one might be a bit of a cardboard cut-out and have stepped out of a James Bond story, but, there is certainly enough real and plausible drama, and satisfying plot twists to make me stay, not only with this, as a recommended read – but be keen to hope Clements still has places to go with Tom Wilde (not to mention Lydia). I shall look forward to following the further adventures.
I received this as an ARC via the Amazon Vine UK programme
Politics, espionage, murder mystery thriller: 1936, Fascism, Communism and a Royal Abdication
Rory Clements’ Corpus, the start of a new series, I assume, nods towards his well-established John Shakespeare, Tudor set spy thriller series. This is because, though set in that turbulent time of the mid-30’s where totalitarian politics are on the rise, and the only possible response to fascism appears to lead to war, his central character here is an academic, an historian, with a special interest in the politics of espionage in Elizabeth’s court, Robert Cecil and Walsingham.
Tom Wilde is an attractive hero, drawn unwillingly into mystery. An American, with strong links to the UK, he has sadness in his life, as a man whose beloved wife and child died in a car accident. He is no bed-hopping Lothario, though he is aware of feeling a strong attraction for Lydia, a fiercely intelligent literary graduate, poet and publisher, with strong anti-fascist and socialist views
Spanish Civil War – Women from POUM demonstrating against Fascism
It is 1936. No one of intelligence can be unaware that there are choices to be made. Spain is engaged in its own fight against Fascism. There are those engaged in furthering the influence of Fascism, and there are those engaged in countering that, and secrecies, and plots, are all around.
Meanwhile, in England, still a hushed up scandal, and possible constitutional crisis is looming. Edward VIIIth is seriously enamoured of an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. There are those who would see him go – as much for his politics as for anything to do with the constitutional crisis between the King’s position as nominal head of the Church of England, and his desire to marry a divorcee. Edward’s politics were regarded suspiciously. It was thought that he would be more likely to interfere politically, rather than maintain the hands off stance of constitutional monarchy. He was also regarded in Germany as being sympathetic towards the Nazi cause, and so there were those abroad who felt Britain would be a better friend of the Reich if King Edward remained than if he abdicated. Stanley Baldwin, it was known, was implacably opposed to Edward marrying Mrs Simpson, and was inching abdication forward as the only possible solution
Chamberlain, Baldwin and Churchill
When a friend of Lydia’s dies in mysterious circumstances, back in the fiction world of this strongly ‘real world set’ book, Wilde is drawn into trying to help her find out what has happened – and a real twisty, turny, wheels within wheels, where does anyone’s real allegiance lie tale begins to play out.
This scores, both in page turning plot, and in interesting history.
My draw back from 5 star is the result of the action man finale, where our motorcycling academic hero physically tangles with the bad guys he has been heading towards unmasking. Some might enjoy the derring do, but I generally find that action man hero stuff gets pretty unconvincing, given the real fragility of blood, flesh and bone, even given the fact that adrenaline rushes can numb awareness of horrid injuries
I’m certainly interested in going further with Wilde, and what looks like an intelligent series, and hope for tone down of the more Bondian, blockbuster film stuff, remarkably unreal as it pretty well always is
A big, old-fashioned, absorbing historical narrative – America in Depression and At War
Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach follows the story of two different tranches of the American immigrant experience, and is set during the Depression and the Second World War.
There are 3 stories followed, which interlink with each other through Anna’s story. At the start of the novel Anna Kerrigan is nearly 12, a young girl idolising her father, and close to her mother and her sick sister. Father Eddie struggles, as so many working men did, at this time, to make a living. He has lost much in the crash and is now working as a kind of muscle for a longshoreman union official. Keeping the family together, particularly with the medical needs of Anna’s sister Lydia, is not easy.
Eddie has decided to take a chance on getting more lucrative work – but this must come at a price, as he intends to offer his expertise to Dexter Styles, a man with mob connections, who has hidden his Italian background, and is riding high in society, happily married. The family he has married into is old money, established class. Everyone knows he is somehow connected, still to ‘a shadow government, a shadow country..A tribe. A clan’ He is though someone who is good at subterfuge, though there are plenty of rumours about him, and as long as no one looks too closely at the source of his wealth, and is just happy enough with that wealth, he, and they, will get along fine.
Eddie has taken Anna along to his job ‘interview’ with Dexter, as knowing something about a man’s family gives him a certain edge and information. And Eddie will be offered employment
Egan then takes a forward jump, and we, like Anna, are in the position of ‘something happened’ – but we don’t quite know what. All we know is that at some point, some years ago, Eddie disappeared. Anna still holds a memory of the mysterious Mr Styles, and the glamour of his house, on that day Eddie took her along. It is now Anna’s job to keep the family together. America is now at war. War has created opportunities for young women, working in fields never open to them before. Anna is now one of a female workforce employed in Brooklyn’s Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting tiny parts for battleships. She has a better dream – the desire to be a diver, to inspect and repair vessels underwater.
This whole section of Anna’s story, her struggle to work in an area thought unsuitable for a woman, was particularly fascinating.
There is also a more conventional story beginning – a chance encounter between Anna and Styles in a nightclub – she recognises him, but he has no idea who she is, especially as when she introduces herself she gives a false last name – a story which will be in part a detective story, and in part a love story. Anna wants to find out the truth about her father’s disappearance, and the mysterious Mr Styles is a sensible place to start
Anna’s story, Dexter’s story – and also the story of Eddie’s disappearance. And it is also the story of capital, labour, and the American Dream
I see the rise of this country to a height no country has occupied, ever….Not the Romans. Not the Carolingians, Not Genghis Khan or the Tatars or Napoleon’s France….How is that possible you ask. Because our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible
High money and low money, muscle, graft, honest labour and labour less honest, corruption, class, race and sexual prejudice – it’s a big canvas.
I did not get to read Egan’s Pulitzer, A Visit From The Goon Squad (though I am minded to, now) That was, I understand, a far more experimental/unusual structure. This is not, though we do have the 3 voices, and the 3 stories, but the structure is a conventional narrative. I found it a fascinating read, particularly because I am drawn to books which engage with describing hard physical work – stuff of craft and muscle.
I could not resist adding this YouTube first part upload of John Adams’ magnificent Harmonielehre, a version conducted by Simon Rattle. The spur to its composition was the idea of a great tanker rising through the air. As I read the physicality of the Naval Yard workplace sections, Adam’s amazing piece, with its incredible opening, was in my mind’s ear
I received this as an ARC from the publisher, Simon and Schuster, via Netgalley. Gratefully.
Robert Harris’ Enigma succeeds on all the counts I had for it – an absorbing, immersive, thriller; one which though a fiction had enough basis in reality for it to appear an authentic possibility; to be educative, informative and clear about the technology without either sending this reader to sleep, refusing to grapple with the nuts and bolts, or employing the implausible devices bad writers use to educate their readers. And, more than this, I wanted the combination of frantic need to turn pages with a wonderfully structured narrative, interesting characters and, above all admirable writing!
Harris delivers all – not to mention twists I didn’t see coming but, once they occurred I rather hit my forehead wondering how I could have NOT suspected and predicted them. Those are the very best twists – not ones which are just rather crude writerly devices, but twists which make complete sense AND are missed by the reader – particularly in a book which in the end is about a top secret mission, so every character in the book is rather in the dark on the whole picture, and those that aren’t in the dark are doing their level best to cover their own tracks! Twisty, turny puzzles and a mounting sense of urgency are the background of the real story and setting – Bletchley Park and the cracking of the Enigma code in World War Two – which Harris constructs his wonderful fiction around
Enigma machine (not decoding machine) Alessandro Nassiri – Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci” source -Wiki.
It is 1943. Alan Turing is not, at this point, in Bletchley Park, but is in America (he assisted in the construction of the famous ‘bombes’ used to crack the codes, for Bell Labs in the States from November 42 to March 43) This ‘absence’ of the known, real figure gives Harris the novelist freedom to keep known and major history in place but have a different cast of characters, without the problems involved in creating untruthful fictions out of real lives.
His central character, Tom Jericho, is a young Cambridge mathematician, one of those recruited as one of the Bletchley code-breakers. Jericho is presently back in Cambridge, having suffered some kind of break-down through overwork during an earlier, intense time at Bletchley. He has been sent back to recuperate.
Jericho, one of Turing’s students, has been instrumental in a major decoding operation. It’s not only the stress of working against deadlines to crack the codes used by German U Boats as they targeted Allied shipping which caused Jericho’s breakdown, but a love affair gone wrong.
German U Boat
Inexplicably to those at Bletchley, the Germans suddenly and dramatically change their known patterns of coding. With America about to send fleets of ships, containing supplies to Britain, and U Boats patrolling the sea lanes, it is essential that the codes are re-broken, and Jericho is summoned back to Bletchley, where he half longs to be and half dreads to be, not least because of the pain of the ending of his love affair.
Harris absolutely winds up, tighter and ever tighter, a feverish atmosphere, – working against a dreadfully ticking clock as the likelihood of U Boats finding the American fleet increases, hour by hour. Britain in blackout, edible food increasingly rationed, and dreadful moral calls always lurking – if codes are cracked, how far and how quickly can the Allies save immediate lives in danger, against the fact that such actions will alert Germany to the fact codes have been cracked and lead to radical changes again. And what caused the sudden previous change anyway? Something is not quite right at Bletchley Park…..
This is a brilliant thriller, and Harris looks at wider considerations than just the urgency of code-cracking during the war. It also has much to reveal about class politics, gender politics and the sometimes uneasy relationship between Britain and America, linked to Britain’s class-conscious society. Many of the people who came to Bletchley or were recruited into the Secret Services were old-guard, boys-club, those who had come from the ‘best’ public school backgrounds, into the ‘best Universities, and were ‘people like us’ But the war also needed people ‘not like us’ who had the requisite skills in cryptanalysis, the kind of mathematical ability and conceptional thinking which this needed, who might have gone to the ‘best’ Universities on those merits. And there might be others, ‘not like us’ at all in fact, alien to the whole old boy network – women – who might also have the kinds of minds for the work.
Hut 6, Bletchley Park, War Years
Bletchley Park recruited many women, and certainly some of them must have been hugely frustrated by being utilised well below their intellectual abilities, confined to less demanding, more lowly (but necessary) clerical tasks, simply due to gender. Some of the women would have had sharper, more astute minds for the work than some of their male section heads. And equally undoubtedly the power differentials between men-in-charge and women in lowlier positions would also have been used and abused.
Harris creates two wonderful leading characters, who come into conflict and into a working accord with each other – Tom Jericho himself and the understandably resentful, bitter, highly intelligent Hester Wallace, the house-mate of his lost love, the impeccably upper-class Claire Romilly. It is quite refreshing to see a complex, layered relationship of trust, distrust, dislike, respect and understanding between a male and female, which has nothing to do with a sexual relationship between them, explored.
By all accounts the less than satisfying sounding film-of-the-book did an unnecessary sex-up. The film maker, or possibly eyes-on-the-bucksters of raising finances, took the decision to create a love-interest between Jericho and Hester, thus negating the more interesting dynamic which understands that not every male/female relationship needs sex as its glue.
A highly recommended, immersive, well-written and intellectually stimulating page-turner. It had me reading far too late into the night, and waking far too early before dawn to pick up again and read further
And, an edit – better late than never, I posted before finding the pingback links to Fiction Fan’s review of the book which made me determined to get and read it, and quickly, and also of the film of the book, which made me equally determined to AVOID viewing! Hopefully I have got my pings in before she notices the missing credits!
Gardam’s wonderful first novel – I Capture The Castle got a deal darker, and somewhat weirder
Jane Gardam is a most felicitous, and most English writer; one of pleasing quirk, wit, eccentricity and fine observation.
This novel, published in 1971, astonishingly her first novel, with its nearly thirteen year old narrator, Jessica Vye, even more astonishingly won an award twenty years later from the Phoenix Association, as ‘the best children’s book published twenty years earlier that did not win a major award’. – my astonishment is with that ‘children’s book’ the level of sophistication, wit, intelligence and nuance in the writing speaks also to a very un child audience. Gardam is a world removed from the film tie-up narrative action obsession which many (of course, not all) YA books seem to be geared to.
Jessica, first person narrator, is the daughter of a schoolmaster who ‘discovered a calling’ and is now a junior vicar. The book is set during the Second World War, in Cleveland, Tees-side. It is a world of great social divides, and she is of course from an impoverished, cultured, deeply moral family.
The novel starts arrestingly, thus :
I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point
Now, I must admit, with a quite ‘lost my innocence, twenty-first century head on’ I thought that beginning was going to herald some tale of child molestation or other abuse.
Not so – Jessica, aged 9 has a cataclysmic experience when a poet visits her school, and informs her
JESSICA VYE YOU ARE A WRITER BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT
This is an utterly delicious book. For the first third I was laughing immoderately, and the influence of another wonderfully witty English writer – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle – was very clear.
But Gardam goes into darker territory – just when you think you have the measure of the book. Jessica is certainly quite an odd child, there is an awkwardness about her, socially. She has something of the misfit about her, and, though nothing is ever spelt out, the reader might imagine that grown up, she might have a great fragility, and, perhaps keeping a tight grasp on sanity might, at times, be a challenge. Not only is she a little strange, something of an outsider, but she is drawn, as a child, to less than conventional adults.
Dorland Long Steelworks, Teesside, 1930s
The intensities of religious faith, as well as the intricacies of class, not to mention the fervour (and humour) of messianic communism feature largely in this book, as good works and visiting the slums happen, all against the background of air-raids and rationing.
In none of this does Gardam (or Jessica) lose her quirk, wit and lightness of touch
This is one of those wonderful books that utterly amuse, utterly enchant, whilst at the same time presenting the reader with the bottomless chasms and impossibly charged heights of rollercoaster early adolescence.
Here is Jessica, crafting a poem whilst worrying about the awfully grown out of dress she is going to have to wear to a house-party which her mother insists she must attend, given by church colleagues of a higher status
‘As merman weeping in a seaweed grove, As sorrowing dolphin on a silver strand…. I stretch my hands and cry for life and love.’
I read this through and was extremely pleased with it. I wrote a few more verses and then went and looked in the wardrobe. The viyella hung like a dead bird. It had little round pale-blue flowers all over it and pale buttons and puff sleeves. I went back to the poem and read it again. It was dreadful
This is certainly one for me to keep on my shelves, and return to at intervals when delight in an easy-read, wonderfully crafted book is needed
As Gardam herself grew up in that part of the world, at that time, and is of course a writer, there is indeed a sense that her own experiences may have been the inspiration for this book
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.
Church Bridge Breslau, Silesia/Wroclaw, Poland Wiki Commons
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.
Jackie Copleton, the author of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, was working in Nagasaki as an English language teacher in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on that city. This book has in some ways been percolating away for 20 years.
In her foreword, Copleton states her aim, with this book :
When we talk about conflict we tend to divide the warring sides into the good guys and the baddies. This book was never meant to be a story about blame or accusation. I wanted to pull something good from the ruins of the city
It was that stated intention which drew me to this, as it rather suggested a writer of emotional nuance and depth, and the following was the clincher:
The more you research a subject the more it shatters into different interpretations. We view history through the prism of who we are, what we believe, how we see ourselves and how we want to be perceived. We pick through the bones of the past until we find the narrative to suit our needs
So…..clearly Copleton is a thoughtful person with clear aims and empathy and imagination towards different stories, different viewpoints.
But is she a novelist? Resoundingly so
Yes, this book does look at the moment of impact, when the bomb fell, and there is a detailed and searing account of the blast and its horrific consequences. This chapter is stark and terrible, but it is not the big set-piece climax or story of the book
In some ways, this is a story of an ordinary family, leading ordinary lives, with ordinary secrets, lies and cupboards of skeletons. It is the terrible impact of ‘pikadon’ (brilliant light, boom – the sight and sound of that bomb) on those ordinary lives with their ordinary skeletons which the book follows, giving us a picture of Japan through the eyes of her central character. Amaterasu Takahashi, an elderly Japanese widow, living in a retirement home in America in the nineteen eighties. Amaterasu and her husband Kenzo left Nagasaki after their daughter, Yuko and her son, their grandson, Hideo, aged seven, died in the blast. Amaterasu’s story, however starts, aged 15, shortly after the end of the First World War in Nagasaki, in a very different kind of Japan.
When the book opens the elderly Amaterasu is alone, lonely, secretive, living with terrible secrets, and a feeling of guilt. She feels it was through her fault that Yuko was in the direct epicentre of the bomb’s impact, on that day. She, rather than anyone else, caused Yuko’s death. She keeps herself to herself, and since her husband’s death gets through her days with just enough alcohol to take the edge off her unbearable anguish.
The past breaks through when a middle aged Japanese man, dreadfully burned, dreadfully disfigured, unexpectedly knocks at her door and announces himself as that long dead grandson, a lucky survivor of pikadon. And his story, and the story of how in the end he found her, and the documentary evidence he brings, unravels the secrets, the skeletons, the lives.
Interspersed, at the beginning of every chapter, are excerpts from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture, by Bates Hoffer and Nobuyaki Honna, which take a word which describes a Japanese ethical, cultural or philosophical concept which has no direct Western correlation, and picks it apart, explains it. The concepts chosen are to some extent unfolding in the succeeding chapter
Memorial, Nagasaki Peace Park, Wiki Commons
There is a kind of modesty, an elegance and restraint in Copleton’s writing, in the voice of her central character, the letters and diaries written by protagonists in this story, which rather honours and embraces a country which is now so Westernised – but, also, so strange to Westerners.
I read this as a copy for review, from the Amazon Vine programme, UK and it’s one I highly recommend. The story is one the reader needs to discover for themselves. I did guess quite a lot of what might be going on, probably because I have read some other fictional books with a Japanese setting, so putting two and two together about certain characters, I was not as a reader surprised by narrative. Which made not a jot of difference to my pleasure in the reading.
The Wind Is Not A River takes as its springboard the `Secret War’ between America and Japan in Alaska, in 1942 and 1943. Two Aleutian islands, Kiska and Attu, which were part of America’s Alaskan territory, were invaded and occupied by Japan. The importance of the territory was that of control of Pacific transportation routes. It took over a year for American forces, supported by Canadian reconnaissance and fighter bombers, to take back the territory. At the time, there was a virtual news embargo on the fact that Japan was in occupation of two islands in Alaska which were American territory
Canadian author Brian Payton uses this secret war to explore several themes, and to tell a love story.
John Easley is a Canadian journalist, on the scent of a war story which was being embargoed by the War Department. He also has his own, personal motives for wanting involvement in dangerous work, as he is mourning the death in combat of his brother, a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force
Easley is married to Helen, an apparently conventional woman. The two have a happy marriage, though both are suffering as though they yearn for children Helen does not conceive.
The start of the book is the shooting down of the plane Easley is in, over Attu, leaving him and one young American soldier, Karl Bitberg, as the only survivors. Attu is occupied by Japanese troops, and Easley and Bitberg struggle in a harsh, cold, environment to survive without being spotted by the Japanese
Attu village, Attu, 1937. Wiki commons
All Helen knows is that John has gone missing, following a bitter row between them when he had decided to investigate the rumours of this hidden war, and she had given him an ultimatum that if he did go into the war zone, she would not wait for him. She is painfully suffering guilt, and refuses to believe her missing husband is dead.
He must document some part of the war that claimed his brother, the part that seemed to have fallen into his lap. If someone isn’t there to observe and record, capture it on the page, it will be as if it never happened. The sacrifices made on our behalf must be known before they can be remembered, he said
John Easley’s journey is to survive, and the fierceness of the survival instinct strips away aspects of civilisation and humanity. There is raw writing about the physicality of survival, and a focus on male comradeship which develop between people on the border between life and death, where the only thing they can trust is each other; all else will kill them. There is a story of both physical, emotional and moral survival here, what is killed, and what remains
Helen knows and accepts her connection to, and need of, others and intimacy, but she also has hard choices to make. Her father, Joe, suffers a stroke, and needs care – does she stay and care for her father, particularly when everyone around her believes John is dead, or does she give in to her fierce belief that her husband is alive, and in a sense `become investigative reporter’ and try to unravel this story, and find where he might be.
The book is told in alternating chapters, both in the third person: Helen’s physical journey, which of course will change her utterly, as she steps away from being a person cared for, and taken care of, into becoming a protagonist, a person who forces change to happen ; John’s journey takes place within a very small geographical area in the snow, fog and ice of Attu, but it is a journey into himself and into what it is to be a human animal struggling to survive against the odds. How do we measure out what it is to be human except in relationship with another human?
Chichagof Harbor under attack during the Allied liberation of Attu. May 1943, Public Domain : United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division
I had some reservations which pulled me back from 5 star – the `wrap’ was tied up and balanced too neatly, leaving nothing untied; a little too poised, a little too perfectly accommodated and resolved, and there were aspects where chance and coincidence seemed too often employed.
For some reason the hardback version is titled The Wind Is Not A River, but the paperback version is retitled All This Will Be Lost, and the book-jacket looks much more geared towards `female fiction’ romance, but the book is much more than `romantic fiction’. I can only assume that the lack of four-square easy understanding of a defined meaning in that first title proved problematic for marketing/pitching. Personally, I had liked the ambiguity, the sense of metaphor, in the original title. Oh, and in case anyone wonders, it is a quote from a letter found by John Easley, written by an Aleut woman, and is by all accounts an Aleut proverb, which kind of translates as ‘all things pass/change’ but it is a phrase unexplained within the book, leaving it open to interpretations by the reader; my own was that rivers have a beginning and an end, and flow from individuality to mingle with the oceans, their journey is known. The wind is unknown, unpredictable, cannot be grasped. Where it starts and where it ends, how it changes its nature from delicacy to overwhelm, and indeed its very direction, is mysterious, random – and swift
I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK
A warm-hearted, well written story: Unusual friendship in World War 2 on the Home Front
I had enjoyed, with reservations, Lissa Evans earlier book, Their Finest Hour and A Half, also set on the Home Front during World War 2, which featured a film crew turning out Ministry of Information Films. Evans has a nice line in both humour and pathos, but my reservations of that earlier book were that characters verged a little into caricature, and the book could have withstood a lot of cutting and paring back
In this later book she has done that paring back, and turned her attention to a smaller number of characters and central relationships
Noel is a 10 year old precocious orphan. Fiercely intelligent, a loner, a bit undersized and easily bullied. And he has a godmother whom he adores, and with whom he lives, rapidly heading for dementia and desperately trying to keep it together. Mattie is home schooling him, in rather anarchic fashion – particularly in left-wing politics, abhorrence of war, and feminist politics (she was a suffragette who was imprisoned and force fed for those pains) Both Noel and Mattie are desperately trying to avoid the authorities finding out how bad things are, and, particularly, neither want Noel to be evacuated to a safer place as the blitz begins to bite.
Unfortunately, all attempts fail, and an officious relative of Mattie’s steps in and Noel is evacuated to St Alban’s.
He is a rather unattractive looking child, and has retreated, in grief, to stoic silence, leading to all concluding he is simple minded. As it is the prettiest, most spic and span children who get first picked by host families, Noel is the shop-soiled reject no-one wants. Until Vee, a desperately poor cleaner, on the verge of middle age, living by her wits, supporting her elderly mum and feckless adult son, sees an opportunity for a little extra cash coming her way, by taking in Noel for the duration. Much cleverer than Vee, who is actually possessed of a great deal of imagination and survivor instinct, given half a chance, the two slowly begin to make common ground, finding, for Vee, ways to avoid continuing to be the victim that class and some bad judgements have made of her, and, for Noel, putting his fertile intellect in the service of money making scams gives him the first small beginnings of escaping from grief.
Evans has created a couple of extremely likeable oddball, misfit characters whose relationship with each other, initially built on mutual dislike, slowly moves towards something bordering a kind of mutual respect based on what each can gain from the other, into a warm heartedness based initially on `being crooked’ in order to survive. There is plenty of humour to be found in the sharp exchanges between the two, with Vee, especially having much to learn from the greater intelligence and wisdom of her young evacuee
We’re telling people you’re my boy and then you’re using words like…like “original” and “hence” No one from St. Albans ever says “hence”. And you should say “my mum” not “my mother” and anyway you just don’t sound right. You sound as if you come from somewhere posh and I sound
`Common’, said Noel. Vee coloured. `You don’t say things like that about people’, she said. She fiddled with her hat. She thought she’d been looking smart and now she felt like a greasy rag. `You don’t know anything about me,’ she said. `I was at school till I was fifteen, I was clever. I wanted to be a teacher.’
The nicely drawn supporting characters include Vee’s dotty mum, endlessly writing letters to Churchill and Chamberlain, offering them advice on winning the war, her adult son Donald, exempt from call-up through a dicky heart (and scams of his own to pursue) and another very aged suffragette whom Noel befriends.
What I particularly liked, is that for all Evans’ light touch, there are real emotions which the reader is confronted with. We end up rooting hard for this most unlikely pair of individuals, individually and together.
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