Tales of Survival: A Woman in Berlin and Gone to Ground

I decided to write about both these books in one post for several reasons. They share obvious themes for one, and they complement each other in that one is written by a free German woman, an ‘ordinary citizen’, and the other is written by a Jewish German woman who spent the war in hiding. They have the same setting and certain things in common, but they are two distinct stories and that must be acknowledged and appreciated by the reader – though they can be compared.

They are very individual stories. Other women in similar circumstances will have had completely different experiences, for better or worse. In some ways these two women were lucky – they were not imprisoned or sent to the camps, and they survived the war. But they were deeply unfortunate to be Berliners at that time. They both suffered for it enormously.

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First let’s talk about A Woman in Berlin. It was written and published anonymously, though some have identified the author as journalist Marta Hillers. I’m not sure if Hillers ever confirmed this herself, and honestly it doesn’t matter too much to me. The author wanted to be anonymous, to depict a ‘snapshot’ of her experience rather than to talk about herself.

The point is that the author is an ordinary woman, but in some ways she is extraordinary. When her diary starts on 20th April 1945, she has already lived through years of war and her fiance has gone to the front. She begins her diary because she knows, somehow, that she is now living through history.

I have called her extraordinary largely because of her personal strength. She loses more or less everything and yet she does not break down or give up – she always carries on. She see people around her, some of whom she knows well, either give in to despair or be arrested and disappear. Looking back on the book it is clear she is living in a state of depression and trauma, forcing herself to carry on.

When A Woman in Berlin was first published in German in 1953, it was ‘ignored or reviled’, largely because of its depiction of rape. The author and almost every other woman in the book is raped at least once by Soviet soldiers, and no one in Germany at the time wanted to know about this. The book was published in America in 1954, and it seems that non-German audiences were more receptive. As time has passed both German and non-German readers have come to understand and see that the painful reality of what happened to these women must be acknowledged. Reading about these assaults is horrifying, but the women prove that you can live on after something like that and that your world does not have to end. This is partly because life goes on regardless, but also because it must. The author and her fellow women see that if they do not carry on things will only get worse.

It is difficult to explain what it is really like to read A Woman in Berlin; I can only say that it was one of the most intense and emotional books I have ever read. The writing is clear and pragmatic, but still lyrical and full of beauty where it can be found. Gone to Ground shares this trait – the author seeks out life and beauty where she can.

Marie Jalowicz was a German Jew living in Berlin when the War began. She carried out forced labour at the Siemens factory until 1941 when she realised that her situation was too precarious. When some post was delivered to her she told the postman that her ‘neighbour’ Marie had been deported. Unsurprised by this the postman noted that she had ‘gone east’ and that was that. Marie then took on the identity of a non-Jewish friend, including forged papers, and lived as a ‘U-boat’ – one of 1700 Jews who lived in hiding in Berlin during the War.

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Marie Jalowicz in the 1940s (image: timesofisrael.com)

Her story is incredible, and I was overawed by her bravery and resilience. She stays with friends and colleagues, acquaintances, really anyone who will take her in and not report her, and she has to move every few days and weeks. There is a huge cast of supporting characters who help her along the way, some more remarkable than others but all of them literal life-savers. Marie is forced to take risks and more than once she is just a knife’s edge away from being discovered. This makes reading Gone to Ground and intense and exciting experience, but also very emotional. Marie loses both her parents early on, and everyone she know seems to be desperate in one way or another. Too afraid to write anything down, she keeps a mental diary of things to remember and as a way to process everything that happens to her.

Her story is a mixture of life threatening adventure and the mundanity of being in hiding. She is unemployed and so must either keep busy at home (where sometimes she must stay in a single room to avoid detection) or walk the streets of Berlin from morning til night. More than once she has to repel the advances of men offering her help in return for sexual favours, though one a few occasions she decides to give in rather than face the Gestapo. Similar to the anonymous woman she realises that it is sometimes better not to fight in order to live.

At the very end of the book the Soviet soldiers arrive in Berlin. At this point she is staying with the non-Jewish friend under whose identity she has been living, and they are both raped. Marie is very matter of fact about the whole thing and does not involve her emotions, even when she hears her friend screaming. She reasons that this is still preferable to being sent to a concentration camp. Despite this it is still utterly horrifying.

Gone to Ground was put together by Marie’s son Hermann. He knew his mother had a remarkable story about the War and towards the end of her life he persuaded her to record her story on several tapes. In the Afterword he writes about this experience and how he reacted to his mother’s story. He writes that she remembers everything.

I would highly recommend these books to anyone interested in life in Berlin during the Second World War. They are unforgettable books that remind us of the experience of the War outside of the Holocaust itself, and that even those that were not persecuted by the Nazis also suffered terrible experiences.

The only thing I must say is that they are not ‘easy’ and will have an emotional toll. But they are more than worth it.

*

I read the 2005 Virago paperback edition of A Woman in Berlin and the 2016 Clerkenwell Press/Serpent’s Tail paperback edition of Gone to Ground (both pictured above).

Purchase A Woman in Berlin from Foyles and Wordery.

Purchase Gone to Ground from Foyles and Wordery.

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Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun (tr. Adriana Hunter)

In short, Her Father’s Daughter is another amazing little book from Peirene. If you are a child of divorce, like me, you will recognise at least some of the emotions and scenarios in this book. There are moments and situations that will make your heart stop; things you recognise that you hoped you had forgotten. Her Father’s Daughter is a simple story with plummeting depths of emotional pain, laid out in front of the reader from a child’s point of view. The child (as she is most often referred to) does not understand the full weight of the situation, but you, the grown up version of her, understand it all with a lucid horror.

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2016 Peirene Press edition

Marie Sizun wrote the book in her 60s, and it is filled with the wisdom of age looking back on youth. Through her wisdom we see the suffering of the child’s mother, left alone after her husband goes to war and is then kept prisoner for several years. You can see that she tries her best, but has a deep sadness within her. The news that her husband is to return is both a joy and a discomfort, as their little life is disrupted and the child has to learn that her father is a real person (she has never met him). The concept of a father, and that of a mother, is examined from the point of view of the child, only four years old, and we wonder what makes a person a parent – simple biology, or the nuances of everyday parenting.

When the father does come home he is an alien to the child, replacing her at her mother’s side. But the complexity of the relationships within this small family soon shows as the child turns towards her father and away from her mother. The change is circumstances shifts her entire view of her small world, and she begins to question what was once the norm. She also feels an intense desire for her father’s approval following his initial lack of affection and outbursts of anger (seemingly the symptoms of PTSD following his experiences in the war). To do so she reveals a secret, something she knows happened but that her mother and grandmother have insisted that she dreamed up. This revelation throws everything into turmoil, and her father once again becomes distant. She cannot understand the monumental spanner she has thrown into the works by revealing the secret. Her parents’ marriage crumbles around her as she is still trying to work out what on earth is going on. As an adult reader you understand the turmoils of their ruined marriage more than the child does, and it is heartbreaking to see this little family crumble. Sizun’s writing is sparse and to the point, whilst still being subtle enough not to create melodrama. There are hushed arguments and loaded comments, devastating silences and pained looks. Things will never the same again.

At the end of the novel we get a few scenes from the adult life of the girl, and her later relationship with her father. We see the long term effects of her childhood revelation and come to understand that families do not forget, that some things will always be there (or noticeably absent). Sizun manages to capture the quiet pain that lasts from years before, and how we cope with heartbreak, both big and small. The effect is subtle and deeply moving, a poignant look at the delicacy of familial relationships.

While Her Father’s Daughter is not the cheeriest of books, it is beautifully written and very elegant, and certainly engaging despite the slow pace. Peirene have published yet another small masterpiece.

*

Originally published in France as La Pere de la Petite by Arlea in 2005; published in English by Peirene Press in 2016. My copy was kindly provided by Peirene for review.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

In Which I Am So, So Glad I Finally Read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

In brief, this is the story of a man who was once a Nazi officer, a story of his war; it is a fictional autobiography of an intellectual thrown into the horror of the Second World War. It is the War from ‘the other side’. But it is so, so much more than that.

Dr Max Aue is an intellectual, a successful businessman; and he used to be a Nazi officer. In his introduction he states that he intends to ‘set the record straight’ and that is why he decides to tell his story, but there may be other reasons in play. At times he is brutally frank about what he saw, or did, or was involved with, and one cannot deny the catharsis of a confession.

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The detail of the historical research in The Kindly Ones is astounding. Jonathan Littell spent five years researching and a year writing, and it shows. The real characters, that we know from history, are well rounded and chime with historical accounts (particularly Himmler and Eichmann). The depth of detail displays the bureaucracy, internal politics, and conflicts within the Nazi party that affect so much of what happens during the War. Once you have read about the grim reality of the victims, it is fascinating to gain this perspective into the Nazi regime. As in Eichmann in Jerusalem, we learn of the inner workings and day-to-day events that make the Party seem almost like a business or a manufacturer. As Max rises within the Party and is privy to more and more of its inner workings, we see that the suffering of the victims is often viewed as a byproduct of the industry the Nazis create.

Max himself is a Freudian nightmare; self-obsessed, filled with self-loathing, fixated on bodily functions and the intricacies of his family relationships. He relates his dreams, analysing them a little and leaving the rest to us. He in an intellectual dragged into a bloody war between what might be good and what might be evil, and he hates both himself and everyone else around him. He is repulsed by human suffering, but also by his own actions. It is unsurprising when he gets ill or has a mental breakdown (both happen more than once).

I could spend a lot of time and words analysing Max and his own unique brand of crazy. He is a deeply real character, a terrible and brilliant person, and you both hate him and love him, mostly out of pity. I greatly admire Littell for his commitment to his creation.

The Kindly Ones is heavy going, not only for its subject matter and the intensity of Max’s narrative, but also because it is over 900 pages long. But, if you have the interest in the history, as well as the philosophy and psychology (there is a lot of both) then it is well worth the time and effort. Like Max, it is terrible and brilliant, and crazy in its own way. My only real criticism is that it was obviously translated by an American and so there is some American phrasing, which is a bit jarring because Max is European, and I, the reader, am English. But really this is insignificant.

I can’t tell you how wonderful this book is. It is not something to be taken lightly, but it is its own kind of masterpiece.

*

Originally published as Les Bienveillantes in France in 2006 by Editions Gallimard; then in English in 2009 by Chatto & Windus. I read the 2010 paperback published by Vintage (pictured above).

Buy your copy from Foyles here.

After you’ve read it I would recommend getting some background on the Wikipedia page (lots of excellent Greek mythology).

 

A new Peirene! The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst (tr. David Colmer)

As a rule I love Peirene Press, but I haven’t actually read one of their books for a while. So I was very pleased to be offered a review copy of book no. 19, The Man I Became, which is part of the new ‘Fairy Tale’ series. It’s quite an odd one, given that it is narrated in the first person by a gorilla. It gets odder still as you read on, but better with it.

my review copy - another gorgeous Peirene cover!
my review copy – another gorgeous Peirene cover!

Our narrator doesn’t have a name – in fact only one person in the whole thing does, and that name is only revealed at the end. Our narrator is plucked from his life in the jungle and brought, via a very unpleasant journey, to the New World (which might literally be America, but that isn’t made explicit). He, along with a group of other male gorillas, is taught to be a ‘gentleman’, though they are forced rather than taught. They know that if they do not comply they will either be beaten or will just disappear.

There is a man, a human, put in charge of them. He teaches them how to dress, how to stand, how to smile, how to converse; their first test is a cocktail party, at which they meet their female counterparts (some of whom they recognise from ‘before’) as well as range of other animals who have been taught to act like humans. There are other monkeys, bonobos, which makes sense. But then there are big cats, buffalos, and giraffes. The latter somehow seem the most grotesque of all, as they, like all the others, have been taught to walk on only their hind legs.

Though this is very surreal, it is still upsetting. The animals are dominated and forced to change, to be something they are not, and the whole thing is very unsettling.

The animals inhabit some kind of amusement park called Dreamland. People come to gawk at them, and watch a show performed by animals that are trained, but do not act as humans. This show is about evolution, and the history of the world, and just sounds bizarre. Our narrator works his way up to being a trainer for the animals in the show, and is put in charge of the lion. It is still a lion, albeit a very intelligent one. It acts like a pet cat with him, letting him rub its belly; but they both know the lion could easily kill the gorilla. Here one animal is dominant because they are emulating a human, but the innate power is still a balancing act. We consider what it means to be an animal, and what it means to be a human.

Peirene publisher Meike Ziervogel describes this book as a fable, and I think that’s how it must be taken. It is hard to take it literally. Throughout the book you are confronted with deep immorality and cruelty, and the absolute disregard for the true nature of anyone or anything. Every animal is something to be moulded, something to be exploited. There is a terrible moment when our narrator and his fellow gorillas first arrive at Dreamland, and they are introduced to the human who takes charge of them, and they have been shaved and washed. He says they must become gentleman and if they don’t succeed they will become… and he points to a creature on the floor, in the corner. It is a gorilla, still with all its hair, as they used to look, but now it is “a thing”. It looks like them, but “before the shave but then trampled down, miserable, broken.” This creature is not seen again. It is a truly disturbing moment.

The book contains a strange mixture of mundanity and the unimaginable. Nothing is as it should be, and no one is perhaps who they once were. The whole message, I think, is that you can never forget who you are or who you used to be – but that doesn’t mean that you can go back. The fact that you cannot forget who you were means you also cannot forget who you are now, and that must be accepted, however hard it may be. This novel is also a careful examination of power, and how it can be enacted, and used to change and control. It is terrifying, and reminds us that as humans we are sometimes careless with power. We know the damage it can do, and this odd little fable reminds us of that, in a surreal but nonetheless heartbreaking way.

*

Originally published in 2013 as Geschiedenis von een berg by Prometheus (Amsterdam). Published in English by Peirene Press in February 2016. My thanks to Peirene for the review copy.

Purchase from Foyles here.

The Sense of an Elephant by Marco Missiroli (tr. Stephen Twilley)

A rare deviation from me here – I actually read and am actually reviewing an unsolicited review copy! I know, world gone mad. I usually leave these to mould on the  shelf before they get passed on to a friend/family member/charity shop, but I actually decided to give this one a go. Not least because it came to me from Picador, a publisher I like, but also because it came with a note from publicist Kate Green explaining the very sweet and quite cool little scheme that Picador have thought up to help promote the book. See:

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Pretty cool right? It’s a nice touch, and encourages sharing the book, which I like. Also, the opportunity to pass the proof to someone else who might like it – or because you don’t want to keep it. Either way I like the idea.

So, the book itself. Having liked the concept, I was happy to find I liked the book as I began to read. I think as with any translated book you’ve got to take that fact into account as you read, but regardless I thought that the prose was careful and elegant, simple but effective. We are introduced to our main character, Pietro, who has just taken a job as a concierge at a condominium (essentially a small block of flats) in Milan. He looks after the building, and, you soon realise, its residents. He is particularly interested in the Martini family, and more than once enters their flat when they are out, observing their lives and taking a bicycle bell. What is he up to?

Pietro quickly makes friends with the Martinis’ neighbour, Poppi, who proves to be a charming and wise, slightly world-weary character who is easy to like. There is also Fernando, who appears to ave some kind of autism, and his mother Viola. This cast of misfits come together as Pietro’s mystery slowly unfolds for the reader.

I have to say I liked the sense of mystery that was built up, and even when you know most of the secrets, the story is still engaging. There are odd little flashbacks to Pietro’s time as a young priest, which fit in nicely and aren’t too jarring. They of course slowly shed light on the mystery.

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About two thirds of the way through the book, things start to get a little more intense, and I found both the style of writing and the events of the story becoming more and more dreamlike. To be honest it gets a bit surreal and I wondered why certain things were happening, and why some characters were acting as they were. This developed as the book went on, and though some things were concluded nicely, others were not. This is a story that needs good conclusions, and the ending was just a bit off for me. I think I just didn’t quite get it, which is unfortunate. Maybe I need to reread it a bit and work out what the author was trying to do. But I still liked the book overall, and the ideas that were explored.

Anyway, please don’t let that put you off giving this book a go. It really is rather good, and there is a lot of intelligence and beauty inside.

*

 Originally published in Italy (2012) as Il Senso dell’Elefante by Ugo Guanda Editore. Published by Picador in the UK in September 2015. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik (tr. Deborah Dawkin)

As a rule I think Peirene Press are pretty fantastic, and their output is always both unusual and interesting. Given that they only publish books that have never before been translated into English, to a degree this makes sense. All the stories are a little quirky and unconventional, which I like. But for me The Blue Room takes ‘quirky’ to another level.

2014 Peirene Press cover. Image: goodreads.com
2014 Peirene Press cover. Image: goodreads.com

After reading only twenty or so pages I just thought ‘this is one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read’. It certainly isn’t fun, and Johanne’s narration is very intense and claustrophobic. She wakes up one morning to find that her mother has locked her in her bedroom. So far, so thriller. The novel traces Johanne’s day as she wonders why this has happened, as well as whether she will have to pee in her wastepaper basket and what she’s going to wear since her wardrobe is out in the hall. Interspersed with this are reflections on certain episodes from the recent past. Johanne tells the reader about some of her friends and her everyday life as a psychology student – and her life with her mother. They live in what appears to be a very small flat (her mother’s bed is in the living room), and the only doors appear to be those to the bathroom and Johanne’s room. She and her mother live in close quarters, and have a very close relationship – very close, and a little odd. They seem to be very aware of each other bodily functions and there are several instances in which they talk when one of them is on the loo, and then opens the door without pulling up their underwear. I cringed when Johanne shouts at her mother through the bathroom door that she uses too much toilet paper, and her mother then opens the door to talk to her, ‘sticking in’ a tampon in the process. This is just too close for me.

Johanne’s mother is a bit, shall we say, unusual. She clearly wants to keep her daughter close, but also dishes out criticism and is often over-sensitive. Both she and Johanne are very religious, and she has instilled in Johanne her own thoughts about men – that they are untrustworthy beasts who would just as soon tie you up and rape you as look at you. Honestly – she expresses that view more than once. Though Johanne is at university, her mother treats her like a child and insists she doesn’t yet understand anything about love. A very telling scene occurs when Johanne convinces her mother to come with her to a screening of ‘Betty Blue’, which Johanne has seen before but her mother hasn’t. Johanne tells her it’s a love story, and that she’ll like it. Afterwards her mother has some sort of hysterical panic attack outside the cinema, telling Johanne that she is cruel and thoughtless – how could she think she would like it? It was all sex, and that is not love. She convinces Johanne that she knows nothing, and that she is filled with sinful thoughts.

To me Johanne seemed almost as nutty as her mother. She is a psychology student and is also highly religious. This is fine, but she is plagued by thoughts about her own worth and whether or not she will go to Hell. Trapped in her room, she hopes that God will lead her out and that He will guide her to the right path – again fine, but she has a strange dichotomy of dedication to God, a belief in science – and, crucially, a preoccupation with what might be referred to as ‘unconventional’ sexuality. Whilst daydreaming or thinking about her friends and mother, striking and often disturbing sexual images pop into her mind, and she describes them vividly: a young girl chained to a bed and used by a man who visits every hour; a vision of herself having a very submissive encounter with her imagined mentor, an old bearded man with a ‘huge belly’. These images are unpleasant and their position within her pious thoughts hits the reader in the face. While Johanne derives sexual pleasure from them, the reader wonders what has made her create such violent and graphic scenarios. She is a ‘good girl’ preoccupied with both violent sexuality and pleasing her cold, cloying mother. The Blue Room was not quite how I thought it would be. While psychologically interesting, I did not enjoy reading it and I did not warm to any of its characters. I ended up reading it in short bursts as it was so claustrophobic and intense, and in the last third I have to admit I skimmed a few pages to get ahead faster. I hoped there was some sort of positive outcome and Johanne was able to carry on with her life – for on the day she is trapped in her room she is due to fly to America with a boy from university. So what are her mother’s motives?

This is a very intelligently written book and I admire Orstavik’s courage for writing such a dark story. I’ve read a lot of positive reviews of The Blue Room (from Word by Word, The Writes of Women, and The Little Reader Library) and I think a lot of people will enjoy it for its depth and intrigue, as well as the writing and the issues it raises about mother-daughter relationships and feminism. I appreciated all these aspects – but for me this was a much too unsettling and unhappy tale to enjoy.

*

Originally published as Like Sant Som Jeg Er Virkelig (which according to The Guardian ‘roughly translates’ as “This is what I really am”) by Forlaget Oktober in Norway in 1999, and reprinted in English by Peirene Press in June 2014. My copy was kindly provided by Peirene Press for review.

Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek

My apologies that I haven’t posted in a while – I’ve had a really horrendous cold that had me totally spaced out and without energy. And I’m still recovering from it! It hasn’t been very nice. ANYWAY.

Since becoming an official fan of Peirene Press, I’ve had a greater interest in translated literature, and so I was rather eager to try out the new novel from Stork Press, Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek. Stork Press ‘[Give] Voice to New Writers from Central and Eastern Europe’, an area I know little about except from my reading about the war. It’s a bit different now.

Stork Press 2012 edition (image: goodreads.com)
Stork Press 2012 edition (image: goodreads.com)

Illegal Liaisons is a book Stork Press are very excited about, and their enthusiasm was infectious. I read the book in a couple of days and was left with plenty to think about once it was over. The press release describes it like this:

A passionate novel of unstoppable physical obsession amongst a group of Brussels eurocrats, Illegal Liaisons offers a fascinating insight into the first Polish generation that is truly ‘free’ [after Communism], but struggles to understand where the boundaries of freedom lie.

Sounds pretty good, huh? Stork Press’s Twitter feed has been testament to how much they enjoyed the novel, and not just because of the intense sex scenes. Ah yes, the sex scenes. In a way these could easily be used to sell Illegal Liaisons, and frankly they are part of its appeal (come on, who are we kidding?). But there is more to this novel than sex. It has a brain, and an agenda, and even a load of gender theory thrown in for good measure. In an interview for Stork Press’s blog which I urge you to read, author Grazyna Plebanek states that she used the story of a married man having a heated affair as a medium to explore gender roles and stereotypes, as well as identities and definitions. The result is an intense and fascinating novel that questions the norm of family life as well the necessity of monogamy and the morality of sex. Reading the interview with her really helped to put a new perspective on the novel and open it up to the reader.

While the sex (and the fantasies about sex) are graphic and very erotic, they are also very psychological. Jonathan is cheating on his wife Megi with Andrea, the partner of one of Megi’s bosses and a regular in their wider social circle. Andrea is a classic ‘other woman’. She is very attractive, and teases Jonathan with her elusiveness, always meeting him on her terms. She also flirts with every man she meets, all of whom are drawn to her and regularly form enraptured circles around her at parties. Jonathan knows she could have anyone she wants. He wonders why she has chosen him. He wonders why he chose her. He wonders when and why his relationship with Megi moved from ‘lover’ to ‘friend’.

Plebanek’s writing is unembarrassed about sex and emotions, and is charged with a deep sadness as well as eroticism. She understands that no relationship is simple, whether it be between friends, lovers, spouses, parents, children – they are all complicated in their own ways. I read about these relationships with wide eyes, trying to take it all in and understand it. After I finished the novel I sat there for a moment and tried to digest what I had just read.

Grazyna Plebanek (image: bekap.be)
Grazyna Plebanek (image: bekap.be)

Ultimately, as Plebanek states, the novel tries to show that sexuality is a part of human nature that cannot be ignored, and it is a part of everyday life – the sex scenes are not intended to shock or titillate, they are necessary to these relationships. Plebanek’s choice to write about sex from a male perspective is also very interesting. She states that she:

was curious about the man’s point of view when it comes to passion. It’s traditionally a ‘female thing’, in life, in art. We have Anna Karenina, who helplessly falls in love, but Karenin stays cool. Nowadays men are closer mentally to her than to him, I think.

The aim was to explore modern masculinity in relation to sexuality, and the changing roles of men and women. Megi is the one with the high-powered job that moves the family from Poland to Brussels, while Jonathan is the stay-at-home dad. His traditionally female role leaves him unsatisfied, and Andrea is part of his way of feeling satisfied in his life. But Megi’s role is unsatisfying as well – sporadic sections printed in italics show the reader Megi’s point of view, one that I wish could have been expanded even more. There seems to be a wealth to her character that is left untapped.

While I loved this novel, I ultimately found it quite sad. It is thoughtful, unashamed, brave, and ultimately beautiful.

*

Published on 15th October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

On 18th October I will be attending an event hosted by Stork Press at Belgravia Books, at which Grazyna Plebanek will be in conversation with author and critic Maggie Gee. The event is free, and more information can be found here.