Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game has been on my radar since I discovered it was about the Bauhaus, the German art school whose designs I’ve long admired. It’s one of a multitude of books published to celebrate the movement’s centenary this year. I still have my eye on Theresia Enzensberger’s Blueprint which looks promising but it will have to be a remarkable novel to eclipse Wood’s for me. Beginning in 1922 with the admission of six students whose lives will become inextricably bound, Wood’s novel tells their story through Paul whose memories are brought vividly into focus by the death of Walter, both friend and enemy.
Paul is a talented painter, a skill hardly worth consideration in the Bauhaus school whose emphasis on material and functionality constrasts starkly with the ornate architecture and conservatism of its Weimar home where the local worthies make clear their disapproval of the eccentrically dressed instructors, baptisms of the ‘Bauhaus babes’ and outrageous parties. Paul is quickly smitten by Charlotte, a young Czech, conspicuous in her mannish dress and perfect bob. They become a pair but not a couple, joined by Irmi, Kaspar, Walter and Jenö in an inseparable sixsome. Eager to assert his financial independence, Paul finds work painting extravagantly florid works for rich Americans. When a shocking incident lands Jenö in front of a tribunal, Walter joins Paul determined to earn the money needed to pay off the man Jenö has beaten. Walter has fallen as deeply for Jenö as Paul has for Charlotte, a passion which results in a series of terrible betrayals when it becomes clear that Jenö’s affections lie elsewhere. Meanwhile the brownshirts, for whom the Bauhaus represents everything they both despise and fear, begin their inexorable march to power. When Hitler is elected Chancellor, a decision must be made to stay or go putting love to the test.
Wood explores the nature of love and morality through the story of these six characters weaving her meticulous research lightly through it. She’s the consummate storyteller, foreshadowing events so that we understand the nuance and complexity of these unfolding relationships while maintaining a riveting tension. The Bauhaus detail is fascinating. Wood has a knack of including celebrated members of the movement without a trace of clunkiness and her descriptions of their work are beautiful in their simple clarity:
From the outside you could see many floors at the same time, and the way people disappeared and then materialised made them appear like actors in a jump cut.
This is a story fraught with betrayal, jealousy and a tortured form of love told in the form of a confessional, a tragedy in which the appalling events of Nazi Germany are personalised. It’s a stunning piece of fiction, surely set to appear on a multitude of prize lists and win at least one.