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Who hasn't got a photo of Granny with Hitler?
on 8 January 2013
Daphne Linden is the daughter of an Oxford don, a man of Latvian Jewish extraction and a philanderer. In 1935, she is just 18 and has a place, but not a scholarship, at Oxford. Her father suggests that she spend a few months in Germany, improving her grasp of the language, before resitting her entrance exam. Daphne has a naïveté that we cannot imagine these days, barely understanding the sudden disappearance of a Jewish classmate from her Bavarian school. She then moves to Munich where her friend Betsy joins her from finishing school. The girls find plenty of boys to squire them around and are invited to the winter Olympics.
Seventy years later, Daphne's granddaughter Francie visits the same Alpine resort for work. Francie is not a sympathetic character: she has a nice husband, a flat in Little Venice and a good job in the media so she is -- obviously -- discontented with her lot. She also lives in a world where women have 'manes' rather than hair like normal people. Then she gets word that Daphne has had a stroke in her care home and is asking for her. Next day, she is astonished to see a photograph of Daphne and Betsy with Hitler in the archives. Francie was very close to her grandparents, who brought her up as her father died when she was young and her mother went off with another man. Looking through a box of keepsakes, she is shocked to find her father's birth certificate with his father's name left blank.
I found the premise of this novel intriguing -- posh English girls go off to Germany in 1936 to improve their German and mingle innocently with the Nazi elite -- but the execution is disappointing. I did wonder, on ordering it, if Johnson could write, or if she was someone who gets published because she has a famous family. The novel is an enjoyable enough read but no more than that.
It's not easy to pinpoint where the problem lies with her writing: undisciplined is a word that springs to mind, but it also lacks the spark I expect from a really accomplished writer. Her sentences amble along with no attempt at elegant economy and the plot could be better structured, staggering about into flashbacks all over the place. Her prose is serviceable but uninspired. Every time a new character is introduced, the flow of the novel is interrupted to give a description of them, as if for a police report: the sure sign of an inexperienced novelist, except that some never grow out of it.
She's awfully fond of adjectives too, with nouns often requiring two of them. In a single sentence in chapter two we have picture windows which are vast, views which are both panoramic and marvellous, meadows both rich and Alpine, and long-lashed cows, followed by vistas (presumably different in some way from views) which are 'Lindt-chocolate-wrapper' with white mountains, yellow sun and cornflower-blue sky. I got exhausted reading it.
There are some nice jokes. Francie's husband is, her friends assure her, adorable -- meaning heterosexual, with his own hair and teeth and not obviously a sociopath.
Not all the writing is bad: there are some well-turned phrases, which suggests that Johnson would not take the trouble to edit and edit and edit again until the book was as good as it could be, which is short change for the reader.
I have given the novel three stars as it's an enjoyable read, so long as you're not expecting great art.