Jo 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.
Last week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent
I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.
I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with the literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.
Pamela Erens’ second novel comes with not one but two glowing quotes from John Irving’s New York Times Book Review piece on the cover. I’m amazed that even the New York Times can persuade an author of Irving’s lofty stature to review a book but clearly they have an impressive literary editor. It’s set in Irving’s own New England stomping ground at a prep school full of kids whose parents are bent on a glowing future for their offspring no matter how troubled and complicated their own lives have become. One such is the narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, now a theatre director who is looking back to the events of 1979. Every year the senior boys scrutinise the new girls as they arrive, avid for the possibility of sexual opportunity. Aviva, extraordinarily dressed in a split-skirted purple dress and high heels, catches everyone’s eye. She soon becomes involved with Seung, the son of strict Korean parents. Athletic, popular, the overseer of his dorm, he’s a boy who knows how to bend the rules and how not to get caught. They quickly become a golden couple: attractive, utterly besotted and open enough about it for every student at Auburn Academy to fantasise enviously about what they get up to, not least Bruce who has conceived an obsession for Aviva. But is their relationship all that it’s assumed to be?
I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like The Virgins – a couple of scenes of clumsy, over excited adolescent intimacy and I’d begun to worry that the entire novel would follow the same pattern – however Erens gradually draws you in, engaging your sympathy for her characters: very early on we know things are not going to turn out well for Aviva and Seung. Bruce is our guide to Auburn Academy, his unpleasantness established right from the start with his description of the Jewish Aviva as ‘one of those’. The suffocating atmosphere of a boarding school where everything becomes magnified, all perspective lost amidst the burgeoning adolescent sexuality and experimentation is vividly and skilfully evoked. Although we’re prepared for an unhappy ending the final twist when it comes is utterly shocking. Not a comfortable read then, but a thoroughly absorbing one.
A Marker to Measure Drift is a novel of such intensity that I had to put it down every so often just to catch my breath and anchor myself in my own comfortable world. Written in lyrical often dreamlike prose, it takes us into the mind of Jacqueline who has fled the rebel uprising in Liberia, first to southern Spain then to a Greek island. She does whatever she must to survive, eking out the small amounts of money she earns by giving foot massages to tourists, reluctantly accepting the casual generosity that occasionally comes her way, sleeping where she can until suspicions are aroused when she must move on again. Each day is a struggle but hunger and deprivation have their own comforts, sparing her from the memories of the vile brutality she has witnessed. Gradually, we learn that Jacqueline is the daughter of Charles Taylor’s finance minister, a man who failed to see the depravity and corruption of his boss until it was too late. Threaded through her narrative are memories of her school days in Cheltenham, lunches with her father, love making with her journalist lover, laughing with her pregnant sister, all underpinned by the litany of her mother’s chiding commentary on the wisdom or otherwise of the choices she makes. Sometimes Jacqueline breaks, spending days sleeping and nights wracked with nightmares. When, eventually, she reaches the last town on the island she strikes up a friendship with a young waitress whose kindness she comes to trust. She and Katarina share a drink one evening and the truth comes spilling out. The following day, there is no relief. Jacqueline must pick up her burden again and carry on. No word is wasted in this slim, powerful novel. Alexander Maksik skilfully engages his readers’ sympathy so that we ache for a happy ending knowing that there can be none. It’s the kind of book which makes you look at your own petty problems and feel ashamed.