Tag Archives: Jo McMillan

Motherland: From Tamworth to Berlin with love

Cover imageJo McMillan’s debut has an unusual subject for what is essentially a commercial novel: life in the 1980s German Democratic Republic as seen through the eyes of Tamworth’s only deeply committed Communist and her teenage daughter. That alone would have been enough to catch my eye but two trips to Berlin, where commemoration of the Wall is very much more in evidence than the Second World War, made it all the more interesting – that and my own Cold War teenage years. The novel takes Eleanor and Jess from 1978 to 1984, several years before what Jess had imagined as ‘a low white wall’ was brought down.

Eleanor’s cries of ‘The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! Morning Star!’ fall on deaf ears every Saturday in Tamworth’s shopping precinct, although the butcher becomes exercised enough to wave his bloody cleaver at them most weeks. Eleanor thinks the best of everyone. From a long line of political activists, she and Jess spend much of their weekends collating the minutes for the many organisations she supports. The demands of the cause fill all of Eleanor’s time but she’s lonely and thanks to her mother’s unswerving commitment Jess is a social outcast. When they’re visited by a man who seems suspiciously well dressed for a fellow traveller to Jess it seems that Eleanor’s dreams have come true: she’s to fill the gap left by an English tutor on a summer school in East Berlin. Once there, she’s ecstatic, throwing herself into life in the GDR with abandon, and developing a crush on the widowed Peter which develops into something else over the next few summers as their visit to East Berlin becomes an annual event. Sadly, dreams of a family life in the GDR are scuppered by a cruel directive. Still embroiled in Party machinations, Jess begins to understand that things are not as rosy as she once thought in her mother’s promised land.

There’s a great deal of humour in Motherland, all underpinned with a sober tone – these were unsettling times, after all. Those of us who lived through them, like Jess, wondered what we‘d do in the minutes between the early warning siren sounding and the attack. She, of course, would have been on the other side. Eleanor’s relentless efforts to put right the wrongs of the world are both endearing and funny. Even collecting a takeaway is an opportunity: ‘While we waited, my mum could chat about British colonialism and say sorry for all the things we’d done’.  Jess makes an engaging narrator, at first an eager follower of her mother then gradually dissecting what lies behind the GDR’s façade of unity where everything is done ‘togetherinagroup’ but where ‘your friends can become your enemies and your enemies your friends’. As Jess grows into maturity her understanding of the world overtakes her hopelessly idealistic mother’s. You’re left wondering what will become of Eleanor when November 1989 arrives and the Wall – with all it symbolised –  was pulled down. I’m sure she would have been appalled at the prospect of a museum dedicated to life in the GDR, one of the best I’ve visited in Berlin. An unusual novel, then, and not entirely divorced from McMillan’s own experience, apparently. She was, indeed, Tamworth’s only teenage communist although I hope the resemblance between her own story and Jess’s stops there.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 1

MotherlandLong experience has taught me that a ‘lost’ novel is often best kept that way so I won’t be including Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman here. Surely the entire world and its dog must know about it by now, anyway. Instead I thought I’d take a look at a few less trumpeted titles due in July of which there are enough to spread across two posts, beginning with Jo McMillan’s Motherland set in 1978. Jess’s mother is a communist, a fish out of water in Tamworth which resolutely resists her exhortations to see the light. When she gets the chance to spend the summer teaching in East Germany she and Jess decamp. A new life opens up, or so it seems. It’s billed as ‘a tragic-comic portrait of childhood’ and sounds very appealing.

I’m a little unsure about M. O. Walsh’s debut My Sunshine Away which comes garlanded with praise from an extraordinary range of authors including the likes of Kathryn Stockett, Matthew Thomas and Anne Rice, to name but a few. Set in Louisiana in the ‘80s, it’s narrated by a fourteen-year-old who’s in love with Lindy Simpson, raped on her way home from school one summer day. Worryingly, we may be in The Lovely Bones territory, here, but so many writers have extolled the beauty of Walsh’s writing that I’m willing to give it a try.

Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This sounds entirely different. Greg Marnier is an American academic who has somehow landed up in Aberystwyth. At his college reunion, addled with jet lag and drink, he’s persuaded by a wealthy old friend that the derelict neighbourhoods of Detroit may offer him a way out. Robert’s plan is to buy up swathes of the boarded-up city and build a new America but several of the owners fail to share his vision. Clashes follow in what sounds like an interesting novel.A Hanging at Cinder Bottom

Several years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Glenn Taylor’s The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. His new novel, A Hanging at Cinder Bottomis set during the boom years of the West Virginia coal mining industry. Poker-playing Abe Baach returns to Keystone hoping for a reunion with his lover Goldie Toothman, madam of the local brothel, only to find his brother dead and his father’s saloon a shambles. Trenchmouth was a triumph so I’m looking forward to a rollicking good read.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Scarlett Thomas’ writing in the past – The End of Mr Y left me cold but I enjoyed Our Tragic Universe very much. Her new novel, The Seed Collectors, sees an extended family gathered to remember their Aunt Oleander. Each family member has been bequeathed a seed pod, but with the legacy comes secrets which may divide them irrevocably. It’s described as ‘revealing all that it means to be connected, to be part of a society, to be part of the universe and to be human’. Something of a tall order, then.

The Night StagesSet in the ‘50s, my final choice for this instalment is Jane Urquhart’s The Night Stages which follows Tamara, now a civilian after flying as an auxiliary pilot during the war years and settled in the west of Ireland. Her long affair founders when her lover’s brother disappears after a cycle race, leaving Niall convinced he is to blame in some way. Tamara decides to go to New York, reflecting on what has become of her life and her lover’s as she waits out a fogbound layover in Newfoundland. Both A Map of Glass and Sanctuary Line were quietly beautiful novels – I’m hoping for the same from The Night Stages.

That’s it for the first helping of July’s goodies. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis at Waterstones website. More to come soon.