on 30 May 2011
Tricia Wastvedt has taken some time to follow up on her successful debut novel 'The River', but her second book is worth the wait. 'The German Boy' is a thoughtful and beautifully crafted novel, set in the years between 1927 and 1947, when the tragedy of the Great War still lingers, and new threats and challenges impact the lives of the characters.
This is the story of three women - all connected in some way with Michael Ross, a painter of Jewish descent - and the strengths and limitations of the affection that binds them. Tricia Wastvedt writes with insight about the choices and compromises people make, and those seemingly insignificant decisions which can resonate for the rest of their lives. Despite the dramatic times, the dilemma for her characters lies in the gap between their hopes and the reality of their day to day lives. This is, in part, a novel about unfulfilled potential and those life stories that will never happen; an artist who cannot paint as he would wish, a woman who cannot be a mother, and a love affair which can never blossom.
Set largely in Kent, London and Germany, the story is wonderfully visual. A busy railway platform, a derelict house in Germany, the sea and great shingle bank at Dungeness are all vividly imagined. This is a writer with the eye and the heart of a painter.
In lots of ways this book was very different from what I expected. At heart, this is a family between-the-wars saga circulating between various families - Karen and Elizabeth Oliver, Rachel and Michael Ross (whose father Englished their name from the Jewish Roth), and the bohemian , avant-garde Americans congregated around Francesca Brion. The girls, Karen, Elizabeth and Rachel, friends from school, grow up, fall in love and find their lives entangled, especially in relation to Michael Ross, a painter, as Europe darkens from the twenties and thirties to the war.
This is well-written with some nice turns of phrase, especially at the start, and displays solid storytelling skills but there isn't fundamentally much to distinguish this from a plethora of other stories set between the twenties and the second world war. The introduction of the Jewish family and an English-German marriage follow a predictable narrative arc, and that's combined with a luminous love-story of `just-missed' moments (even though they never manage to kiss, they love each other all their lives... ),and sexual secrets.
So if you enjoy family/generational stories set between the 1920-late 1940s then this is probably a superior example of the type. For me, it was a tad melodramatic, tapping into too many over-used motifs and cultural clichés. So a pleasant read with some nice writerly touches but has nothing new or original to say - and I prefer my fiction with a bit more dash and daring.
It is 1947, the Second World War has been over for almost two years, and Englishwoman Elisabeth Mander, wife to George and mother of three girls, prepares herself for the arrival of her half-German orphaned nephew, Stefan Landau. Stefan is only sixteen years old, but having been born and brought up in Germany and been part of the Hitler Youth Movement, he has been indoctrinated into beliefs of Aryan superiority and of the inferiority of the Jewish race, and Elisabeth finds it difficult to think of him as the vulnerable child her husband does. Elisabeth loved Stefan's mother, her sister Karen, but intensely disliked and feared his German father, Artur Landau, and she is now nervously awaiting Stefan's arrival telling herself that she 'will inherit Karen's son, who I hate and love before I've even set eyes on him.'
Once Elisabeth sees Stefan and realises he has been psychologically damaged by his wartime experiences, she tries to put her misgivings aside and does her best to make him feel welcome. Apparently in response, Stefan presents his aunt with a picture of an attractive girl with copper-coloured hair, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Elisabeth, painted by an artist called Michael Ross. This picture brings back treasured memories that are both poignant and painful to bear for Elisabeth, but Stefan seems to be only interested in discovering the whereabouts of the painter, a man he thinks of as the Jew. Our story then smoothly moves back in time to 1927, where we meet a much younger Elisabeth and her sister Karen, and where we learn of their long-term involvement with the partly-Jewish Ross family, which includes the darkly attractive, but ill-fated Michael.
Spanning two decades, Patricia Wastvedt's second novel moves between London and Kent (with some brief interludes in France and Germany) and is an involving and satisfying story of love, friendship, prejudice, secrets and misunderstandings; it's also very much about the consequences of making the wrong decisions and of lost opportunities. Not a fast-paced, plot-driven tale, but one that is beautifully written with some lovely descriptions of Dungeness and its environs, and a story with a cast of sympathetic characters who are worth caring about. Although I did not enjoy this novel quite as much as the author's debut: The River, I found it an engaging and involving story and one which I can recommend for an entertaining downtime, bedtime or weekend read.
This is a beautiful and poignant novel about the lives of three women and their relationship to a painter called Michael Ross. Rachel is Michael's sister and, like him, half Jewish. Karen and Elizabeth are sisters and Rachel's friends. When Elizabeth and Michael first meet, Nanna Lydia, Michael and Rachel's grandmother, feels they should be together and the two are in love, but misunderstandings and circumstances keep them apart. Elizabeth and Rachel stay close, but Michael goes travelling and Karen marries Artur Landau, a German, an early member of the National Socialist Party and an extreme anti-Semite. The book begins after the war, when Karen's son Stefan comes to England to live with Elizabeth. He is orphaned, traumatised and, like many of the people in this novel, he knows only pieces of his family puzzle. The majority of the book looks back over the time leading up to the war and about the way love, lies and family relationships have shaped their lives.
All the people in this novel are written about with sympathy and understanding. As the reader we know everything, but almost every character knows only part of the story. At each turn we hope and wish everything will work out - however, as Michael Ross says, "a life can't be partitioned and perhaps there's nothing it's better to forget". Michael is always the central character - Elizabeth yearns for him, Karen flirts with him, Rachel and her family miss him, the rich American Frankie tries to buy her "Hebrew", and it is this casual racisim that Michael cannot escape. Although, for him, his heritage is just part of who he is, he finally understands that "his Jewish blood was visible to everyone but him". In Nazi Germany his Jewish blood will have consequences that affect the lives of all three women either directly or indirectly and, when Stefan comes to England, he decides that he needs to find out the secrets of his mothers life.
I really enjoyed this book and cared about the people involved. I loved the prickly and vulnerable Karen and the relationship between her and Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Karen's cold mother, the warmth of Rachel's family and the side story of rich Frankie and her friends fleshed the story and the characters out wonderfully well. This is a great read and Patricia Wastvedt a highly accomplished author.
When I picked up The German Boy I was expecting to read the story of Stefan Landau and his struggle to return to some kind of normality in Britain following the end of World War II - instead what I got was a really wonderful tale of family, love and sacrifice, spanning over several decades.
Stefan Landau isn't the star of this book at all, the real star is Michael Ross, the artist whose mysterious painting Stefan brings with him from Germany.
The book is set during a very well documented period of history, and Wastvedt does a fantastic job of weaving the trials and tribulations of each of the characters round the times they were living in. Every character in the book feels exceptionally real, and they all somehow become victims of their circumstance. Sisters Elisabeth and Karen find their lives taking very different courses, in 2 very different countries on a one way track to war. Yet their lives remain constantly linked by Michael, who they have both known since childhood.
The story was a little slow to start, but once it got going I found it hard to put down. The German Boy is a fantastic book that I highly recommend.
on 30 May 2011
The German Boy tells the stories of kith and kin, the connections, dislocations, choices and unforseen consequences of lives lived in an era punctuated by world war.
Wastvedt captures the minutiae of people's ordinary worlds: the making of a hearty supper, the feeling of starvation, a devastated city, the beauty of a landscape. This is interwoven with the experiences of a people who seem to be caught up in a mystery, where significant events are half known, sometimes spoken about, or perhaps kept secret.
There are some beautiful descriptive passages in the book:
"The sand is full of colours. Elisabeth digs her fingers down and scoops a cool damp handful. She pokes through the grains and they're spangled black and purple, white and pink. The mystery is there's no yellow although the beach that stretches in both directions is the colour of straw."
I read slowly, drinking in all the wonderful imagery that must have been so carefully crafted, and yet all through the book I was wanting to go forward to discover how Wastvedt woudl draw this complex web to a conclusion. I was not disappointed!
The German Boy is an unusual story about love and war, epitomised by the symbols of a silver locket and a decorated rifle, devices woven throughout the book like gold threads among the colours, leading the reader through the myriad intrigues and intricacies of her carefully created characters and the variety of settings into which they fall.
I was impressed with Patricia Wastvedt's complex and time-sweeping story of London families caught up in the web of 20th-century events, from Bohemianism to the Blitz. The lives of a trio of two sisters, Elisabeth and Karen, and their half-Jewish friend, Rachel, become intimately bound up with Rachel's brother Michael. The delicate love between Michael and Elisabeth, the selfish passion between Michael and Karen, the loneliness of Rachel, bereft of Michael, provide the central themes drawn against the effects of the First World War on their families, the emergence of the twenties Bohemian artistic community (into which artist Michael becomes inextricably connected), and the build-up of Nazism. The story crescendoes into the Second World War and concludes with the after-effects.
The novel actually begins with the coda: the German boy is Karen's son who comes to live with Elisabeth after she and her German husband have died during the war. But then Tricia Wastvedt turns the clock back to when the girls were young and plots her story's course concentrating on one character, then another, linking them, with other characters, introduced like new colours in the broad canvas. She never loses her threads in her structure of jumping time frames and moving between characters, and fills in the gaps with minimal description which nevertheless leaves the reader in no doubt of the in-between developments.
The characters become inseparable from their landscapes: Rachel and Eddie in the Kentish marshes; Michael in Bohemian London or painting in Languedoc; Karen oppressed in Munich in the thirties. Elisabeth - the ephemeral, beautiful, dreamy yet realistic, central figure of the novel - floats through the book as the pivot around which everyone else revolves. The Kentish marshes around Hythe and Rye become almost an extra character and are inspiringly described.
Tricia Wastvedt has a lovely style. Her characters ring true, her descriptions of London, or Kent, are detailed and delicate, using emotive metaphors and similes with beautifully chosen words. Her details of dress, habits, lifestyles from post First World War Catford to Bohemian Bloomsbury, or Paris and Munich in the thirties, are well-researched and convincing. Her settings are often unusual such as the Languedoc village of Mazamet where Michael finds himself. She writes with the characters foremost and the world-shattering events as the background which shapes the novel but, apart from the German boy's experiences, are simply part of life. The German boy is the odd one out, the intruder, and his presence at the beginning and end of the novel is cleverly worked to dramatically bind the whole together.
The story is compelling; one wants to know if Elisabeth and Michael come together, is intrigued by the characters' ambitions and desires. I thought the knitting metaphor, which is repeated at various stages of the story, particularly appropriate. Wastvedt knits the lives of her characters into a complex pattern to create a satisfying result, without a dull row, a dropped stitch, or an unravelled edge. This is an extraordinary story about ordinary people and one I found difficult to put down.
on 24 March 2014
I don't know what I expected from this book but I thought it very disappointing.mmi kept reading hoping that the storyline would improve but alas!
I felt it was not worth the read
To me, a good novel is one that stays with you long after the last page has been turned. The German Boy is one of these. Simply explained (if you can express this complex novel simply) it follows the lives of two sisters, Karen and Elizabeth and their relationship with Rachel and especially, Michael Ross and how their lives, moulded by the effects of the First World War are then blighted by the rise of National Socialism in Germany and its anti-Semitism. But it is much more than that. It is about art, about the lies we tell and the truths we cannot admit, love with all its complexities, compromises and inadequacies and about the mistakes we all make that create a web of enduring misunderstanding and pain.
The central relationship is between Elizabeth and her elder sister, Karen. Karen is selfish and impetuous; Elizabeth more quiet and thoughtful. Karen is an easy person to hate. Her thoughtless shallow actions all but destroy Michael's life. In fact, it would be too easy to say that she ruins Elzabeth's happiness as well but, in fact, she is the most damaged by her own foolishness than anyone else. She deceives herself into a hideous marriage to Artur where she becomes brutalised and brainwashed into Nazi ideology ultimately to become one of its victim. As is their son, Stefan, who is the eponymous German Boy. But she performs one noble act by saving her daughter's life which, inevitably, causes further lies, hurt and misery.
Some reviewers here have said that the title is a misnomer and that they thought the book would be about Stefan's indoctrination into the Hitler Youth. To me, this misses the point. Stefan is central to this novel. He is a victim as well. The war destroyed him. When the climax of the novel is reached, it is shocking but it is inevitable.
Another complaint of some reviewers is that none of the characters is likeable. Again, this misses the point. In fiction we are too used in fiction to characters divided into the good and the bad. Here there are no out-and-out bad people (except perhaps Artur and his coterie.) Everyone does his or her best with what life throws at them. They make mistakes but, unlike most novels, don't learn from them. The muddle through as best they can. Life is full of compromises. Otherwise we could not go on.
Finally, what I most admired about this novel is the sheer quality of the writing. It is not a novel to rush but to savour every word. Patricia Wastvedt is a major talent and should be winning all the literary prizes going. I am shocked she is not better known.
The German Boy is at first sight a novel about the intertwined lives of a dozen characters who lived during and between the two world wars. Although their lives are shaped or destroyed by historical events - the great flu epidemic, the Wall Street crash, Kristallnacht, and of course the wars - the book is not really about these events, it is about the consequences in the characters'minds, and the resulting conflicts and deceits between them. Above all it is about lost love and yearning.
I give the highest recommendation partly because it is an interesting story, cleverly constructed with many linked threads and full of surprises, yet always convincing; and partly because a novel about feelings and relationships relies on the quality of the author's observations and Ms Wastveldt's are extremely good as well as elegantly expressed.
Here are a few examples
"His passing was delicate, quiet, like the final eddy of a capsized boat going under" (p87)
The chill of her mother moved "like a cold front from room to room" (p92)
"So many feelings flitted in the shadows now... some were quick and beautiful like half seen birds. She let them fly up and disappear." (p205)
The crockery had "little scarlet swastikas like drops of blood". (p237)
I give one warning: this is not a light read. The prose is never difficult but the book is not a page turner. I went through it slowly. This suited me but may not suit everyone.