Thursday, 19 May 2016

The House by the Lake, by Thomas Harding

Thomas Harding's grandparents were originally called Hirschowitz, and they were Jews who managed to escape from Hitler's Germany just before escape pretty much ceased to be an option. They were relatively fortunate; most of their family got out too. When they came to England, Erich refused to speak a word of German from that day on. For the rest of their lives, they didn't buy German cars, they didn't go on holiday in Germany, their children did not learn German, and they did not speak of the Germany they had known in the years before the war. Only Elsie, Thomas's grandmother, sometimes spoke of it; and particularly, she would tell him about a wooden house on the shore of a lake just outside Berlin, called the Lake House. It was the summer holiday home of her family, the Alexanders, and she spoke of it with longing. It was, she said, her 'soul place'. But when boundaries all over Europe were drawn after the war, the Lake House found itself in East Germany; the Wall ran across the edge of the lake, separating the house from its lakeside frontage. Even if the family had wanted to go back, it was no longer possible.

But after the wall fell, Elsie decided she was going to go back. In 1993, she took with her six of her grandchildren, including Thomas, then 25. She showed them Berlin, and, a vision in black mink and scarlet lipstick, she took them to the Lake House and introduced herself to a bemused Wolfgang, the current tenant, rather less elegant in workman's overalls and a woolly hat. She assured him she hadn't come to reclaim the house (which of course had been appropriated from her family by the Nazis), and then she looked round, eager to see the old house she remembered, still discernible beneath the changes that had been made in the nearly sixty years since she had left.

Twenty years later, in 2013, Thomas decided he wanted to know more about his family's German past. He decided to go back to the Lake House. By now it was empty and it had deteriorated considerably. But he felt himself drawn to it. Why had it been his grandmother's 'soul place'? What had happened to it in the years after the Alexanders left - who had lived there?

As he sought the answers to these questions by tracing the history of the house, he found that he was also mapping the history of Germany in the twentieth century. In broad terms, most of us will know this history. But the book takes us into the lives of the people who lived it - from the aristocratic Wollank family which originally owned the estate on which the house stood, to the Alexanders who built the house and were then forced to abandon it, to Wilhelm Meisel, who became a tenant in slightly murky circumstances and was in turn affected when the communists took charge, to Ella Fuhrmann who was allowed to live in part of it as a caretaker, to Wolfgang Kuhne, who was allotted space in the house by the authorities and lived there for most of his adult years. Finally, it was abandoned to squatters, until the council stepped in and boarded it up.

The author and the house

It's at this stage that Thomas Harding revisits the house. And as he learns more about it, he becomes convinced that he wants to save it. So really, there are two narratives; the main one concerning the story of the house itself, and the secondary one concerning his mission to rescue it from redevelopment.

It's a fascinating and very readable story. It covers so much: how did Germany sink into the madness of the Nazi era? What was it like at the end of the war, when the Russians advanced? There have been excellent studies of what happened in Berlin, but I haven't read much about what it was like for civilians outside the big cities. How was it to live in the shadow of the wall? What happened if you were asked to become a Stasi informant and you refused? All these questions and far more are covered in the book.

And I'm fascinated by how Harding managed to find out so much, just between 2013 and now - and to convert it into this engrossing narrative, Sure, he had a researcher - but even so! I hope he'll be giving a talk at a festival near me some time soon...

Monday, 9 May 2016

Katy's Pony Summer, by Victoria Eveleigh

A couple of weeks ago, I was facing a choice between what sounded like a compelling - but very dark - new detective series on the TV, and a compelling - but very dark - detective novel on my Kindle. Hm, I thought. Not really feeling very noir just at the moment. What to do...? And then my eye fell on the book which Voctoria Eveleigh, whom I met last year on an authors' get-together, had sent me.  On the cover is a picture of a girl (the eponymous Katy), three Exmoor ponies, and the rolling hills of Exmoor. Just the job!

I thought I would just start it, but in fact I finished it that same evening. It's the most recent in a series - I've also read the previous one - about a girl who loves and looks after horses, particularly Exmoor ponies, and her friends and family. It reminds me of the pony books I used to read as a child, by writers such as Christine Pullein Thompson and Ruby Ferguson but these are up-to-date teenagers, with phones and everything.

It sounds such a lovely life, riding across the moors and having adventures. In this one, Katy agrees to look after a pony who has such a bad injury from a piece of wire that's ensnared its leg that both the vet and Katie's father think it will probably have to be shot. It's hard work - much harder than she anticipates when she agrees to do it, but it's worth it in the end.

There's also another story line about poachers who are after the antlers from red deer - there's a very exciting sequence at the end where Katie and her friend manage to trap them, using their knowledge of the moor to help them.

But I think the main reason I enjoy these books so much now is that Exmoor, where Victoria lives, is almost another character in the book. I'm very fond of it too - we live not far away and we've often visited it over the years. We were there a few weeks ago, and it reminded me what a beautiful and varied landscape it is - if you haven't been there for a holiday, and you can possibly manage it, you really should go. It's not as well known as the other National Parks, but it's so lovely. Reading the book took me back there for a few hours. Here are a few pictures to give you the flavour of it, for those of you who aren't familiar with it - what's particularly special is that the sea is so close, too.

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

This novel has been on  several prize lists, and I'd noticed that it was set in the art world, which appealed. So I sent off for it, and I'm very glad I did. It's one of those novels that you can lose yourself in, and at 472 pages, it's a gift that keeps on giving...

The title is the name of a picture with an extraordinary past, but which has been lost. At the beginning of the novel Annie McDee finds it in a junk shop, and thinks it will make the perfect birthday present for  Robert, the man she's been seeing. Unfortunately
, the wretched Robert doesn't turn up for the delicious meal Annie has cooked for him; he's let her down, just like all the other men in her life have - but particularly dreadful Desmond, whose loss she especially mourns. But at least it means she gets to keep the picture.

Incidentally, there's an interesting twist to the narration here - because the picture itself takes its turn at telling the story. It's a bit of a tease, though; the tale only unfolds gradually. Meanwhile we learn about all sorts of other people who have been, or are, involved with the picture. I said that Annie finds the picture at the beginning, but actually that's not true. At the beginning, the picture is about to be sold by Earl Beachenden at Monachorum Auction Rooms. It's expected to make gazillions, and incredibly wealthy (and seriously dodgy) people are falling over themselves to buy it. It's all set to rescue the fortunes of the auction house, and in particular, of the earl. But then it all goes horribly wrong when the picture is stolen... And then we go back to Annie, and gradually find out exactly how the picture came to be in the auction room - and where it has been during the lost years.

There are so many things to enjoy about this book. There's a tender love story; there's a whodunnit, and a who's-doing-it; there's a lot of interesting - if rather horrifying - information about the art world; but above all, there's a range of grotesque, charming, and very funny characters.

It's set in a world of wealth and privilege that's almost unimaginable for most of us - but it's a world that the author knows very well, because she is the chair of the board of the National Gallery, and she comes from the Rothschild banking family. Sometimes it shows. Several of the characters are poor, but their poverty doesn't ring true. Earl Beachenden, for instance. Certainly, he's lost his ancestral pile. But he's still the boss of a prestigious auction room and his daughters all go to private school. So it's a bit hard to believe that he has to steal stale bread rolls form buffet lunches so that he'll have something to eat in the evening. And sometimes the dialogue is a little bit clunky.

But that aside, this is a hugely enjoyable book which made me laugh and kept me absolutely gripped. And the ending was the kind where you almost find yourself cheering. Strongly recommended.