Tag Archives: Meike Ziervogel

Books of the Year 2019: Part Two

Cover imageEarly summer, which seems so very long ago now, was packed with literary goodies for me, particularly May which began with A Stranger City, Linda Grant’s portrayal of a post-referendum London through a set of disparate characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body has been pulled from the Thames. Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry – some of it ragged and frayed – of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Her book reveals a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it – a Brexit novel if ever there was one. I ended Part One by saying I’d try to avoid politics in the next instalment but as you can see, I’ve already failed.

Flotsam, May’s second favourite, is by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, this strange, unsettling book is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings through the story of a young girl and her mother. Told in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Far from an easy read but certainly a rewarding one, Ziervogel’s book leaves much for readers to deduce and is all the better for it.

Vesna Main’s Good Day? sported the second jacket I fell in love with this year, fitting its book as perfectly as the gloriously pink cover of Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar, which popped up in Part One. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point. It’s such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Thoroughly deserving of its place on this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

May’s last choice is much more straightforward, a piece of fictionalised biography which introduced me to a someone I’d never come across but who turned out to be an internationally popular figure. Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage is based on the life of Len Howard who, aged forty, threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. A delightful book, the story of a true English eccentric.

June began with another piece of fictionalised biography by Jill Dawson who often chooses that form for her work. When I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from a media which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.

Cover image

The first half of 2019’s books of the year ends with Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers, an inventive and imaginative piece of storytelling which takes its readers from 1902 to 1974 with a tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before. Not just one story but several nested within each other, this is a novel haunted by madness and grief with more than a touch of the gothic brightened with moments of humour. Absolutely gripping – I loved it.

All of the above are linked to my reviews here if you’d like to know more. Part Three takes us into high summer with the return of Jackson Brodie after a nine-year hiatus, a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal in the Bauhaus and another beautiful jacket, perfect for its book’s contents. If you missed the first quarter on 2019’s favourites and would like to catch up, it’s here.

Flotsam by Meike Ziervogel: More than meets the eye

Cover imageYou may already know Meike Ziervogel’s name. She’s the founder of Peirene Press who publish three thought-provoking novellas in translation a year, several of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Flotsam’s not her first book but it’s the first I’ve read by her. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, Ziervogel’s strange, unsettling novella is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings.

Trine is playing on the shipwreck not far from the cottage where her mother has lived since her father suggested the family leaves Berlin during the war. Her brother Carl falls from the rigging, apparently dead but Trine decides not to interrupt her mother’s daily beach combing, instead dragging his body home, planning to give him a pirate’s burial. On the cusp of adolescence, Trine is an outsider, the butt of sneering bullies, but when she sets fire to the shipwreck her status changes. She’s someone to be reckoned with now. Her mother, Anna, has collected what the sea throws up for years until it fills several of the cottage’s rooms. Once an artist, she had plans to make something of these bits and pieces but nothing ever comes of it. One day she thinks she sees a man who may be Carl, trudging through the mudflats, and her thoughts turn to the war. As this evocative novella draws to a close, Anna at last finds a use for her daily gatherings.

As you may have gathered from that synopsis, this is not an easy book to write about without muffling the small shocks and perplexities which readers should experience for themselves Told first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Written in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, Flotsam is haunted by grief, leaving much for readers to deduce for themselves. Ziervogel’s setting reflects the shifting ambiguity of much of the novel in its atmospheric descriptions:

The blue sky is cloudless. A flock of oystercatchers is heading out towards the sea, which is nothing more than a thin line on the horizon

It was impossible to imagine that in just a few hours all of this would be covered by the sea, which seemed to have disappeared beyond the horizon, dropped off the face of the earth.

Ziervogel’s novella is likely to take you less than an afternoon to read, her own criterion for the books Peirene publishes, but I’d be surprised if you weren’t thinking about it for some time after you’ve finished.