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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How well can we ever know each other?
Sue Eckstein and I were at school together - nodding acquaintances, in the same year, but we didn't know each other well and haven't met for over thirty years. I only found by reading `Interpreters' that we have far more in common than I ever imagined we had back in the old days. In a way, that's one of the themes of this book. Children of immigrant parents have common...
Published on 8 Nov 2012 by C. Edmunds

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-written but a little confusing
I enjoyed this book, but I did get a little confused in places. It focuses on two main characters - Julia, a woman struggling with the fact that her daughter chose to live with her uncle rather than with her - and 'You', an anonymous woman sitting in therapy talking about her experiences in World War 2. The story of the woman in therapy gradually unfolds and is by far the...
Published on 3 Mar 2012 by Littlepig Littlepig


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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How well can we ever know each other?, 8 Nov 2012
By 
C. Edmunds (UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
Sue Eckstein and I were at school together - nodding acquaintances, in the same year, but we didn't know each other well and haven't met for over thirty years. I only found by reading `Interpreters' that we have far more in common than I ever imagined we had back in the old days. In a way, that's one of the themes of this book. Children of immigrant parents have common ground that they only come to realise decades later because it's only with hindsight that certain things become clear. Sue states at the end of the book that this is not autobiography; this is highly fictionalised memoir - and what I found fascinating was picking out the resounding truths that were not the obvious and devastating ones of historical fact regarding the experiences of Europeans in WWII, but the minutiae of everyday life for their children, decades later.

Let me give you an example. When I was little, I was always being told off by school dinner ladies for holding my fork the wrong way up. At home, I was also being told off by my mother for holding my fork the wrong way up - so I learnt to hold it one way up in one environment and the other way up in the other, but which was right and which wrong remained a mystery. In `Interpreters', Julia says: `... Miss Pearson, the nursery teacher I had when I was four... made everyone on my table look at the way I held my knife and fork, and then told me to behave like a big girl and eat properly. Even now I can't do that thing where you mash bits of food onto the back of your fork. And I rarely eat peas. At least not in public.'

I cheered for Julia at this point and knew I was looking at, if not myself, at least someone who'd had exactly the same problems - but also the same joys, like eating squashed fly biscuits off brightly coloured melamine plates. That's something one assumes all children of our generation did, but I've a feeling today's children only know melamine plates from the Antiques Roadshow, even if they still eat squashed fly biscuits.

`Interpreters' is Julia's story, and it's also her mother's story. Julia is vivid, immediate, often angry, forthright, with an adored older brother and a fiercely independent daughter. Julia's mother on the other hand, holds secrets buried deep in her psyche; secrets of identity, of the past, of trauma, of fear, of unknowing. She hides her past so well that even her name isn't used, either in Julia's memory or the novel itself.

This secretive woman is gradually revealed through a series of interviews with a therapist whose role it is to help her to come to terms with and articulate the memories. This therapist strikes me as being well-meaning and no doubt good at her job but also astonishingly ignorant and cack-handed in some of her questioning, due to having no idea - really no idea - of what Julia's mother has been through; what hundreds of thousands of others like her have also been through. She seems to expect Julia's mother to be able to come out with pat answers about sides, with `something profound and meaningful about the war'. How can she possibly? She didn't know what was going on. She genuinely didn't - she couldn't, not even with an SS man living just down the street, and her father's occasional rants about Hitler. Children accept things the way they are. They know no different. Afterwards, when they do know, when they learn in the most traumatic and horrendous way possible, what are they supposed to do? How can they begin to deal with it?

The therapist, naively, asks why Julia's mother appears to have no friends.
`Friends have to know you... And if they know you - if they know who you are and who you were and what you were - how can they possibly want to be friends with you?'

In complete contrast, Julia's paternal grandmother, Clara, provides often wince-making comic relief. As Julia says, `Going shopping with my grandmother was a kind of mild torture.' We're back in peas on the back of the fork territory; I know exactly what this is about. I've been there.

Clara hates that her high-flying doctor son has married someone whose heritage she can guess at, so she has no sympathy at all with her daughter-in-law. Clara might make us laugh, but she's also a monster. Her snide comments are vicious, and when she gives Julia and Max a set of cowboy and Indian costumes, one can almost imagine her chuckling with glee at the result. Her own family is complex. When Julia draws a family tree at school, she's asked by the teacher, `Are you sure that's right?... But your grandmother's mother and aunt were twins... And then two of their children married each other.' I'm glad I never had to draw an accurate family tree at school because my mother's sister is also her cousin due to their mothers being sisters, and the sister/cousin married an uncle - so again, I know exactly where this is coming from. The corker is Clara's casual dismissal of the occasional dysfunctional offspring that resulted and didn't manage to become a world-class doctor or similar: `- but don't bother to write her down.'

Julia's mother's side of the family, however, has to be fictionalised for the family tree exercise, as Julia's mother isn't saying anything, so Julia makes up a nice sensible and normal English family for her - the sort of thing her friends on her nice, normal suburban estate appear to enjoy.

The heart of the book for me lies in one of the interviews, where Julia's mother tells her therapist: `I sometimes wonder if you really hear anything that I'm saying. Anything at all.' The words are clear enough, but the experiences are too foreign for the therapist to grasp. She's an interpreter, but a poor one. It's not her fault. Certain things are not talked about; are too painful. A child cannot be held guilty for the actions of a country at war, but a child will still take all that guilt upon herself, and the results can be devastating. She then has to decide how best to protect her own children. There are two completely different routes to take. In my own case, my mother felt it essential that my brother and I knew exactly what had happened to her family when she was a child, so I learnt about the horrors of the holocaust at an age when perhaps I should have been protected from such things. It terrified me, and I tried not to think about it too much. My mother's rationale, then as now, was that such events should be spoken of openly so that mistakes can be learned and history cannot be repeated. Julia's mother takes the opposite path; she hides the past completely in order to protect her children and herself, but in doing so she condemns herself to the agony of years of mental health problems and the associated barbaric treatment.

Nobody in this book can interpret precisely what anyone else is doing or why. Clara can't understand why her son married this girl. Julia can't understand why her father is so remote, or why her brother refuses to conform to expectations - and she certainly can't understand her own daughter's decision. And yet Julia is an anthropologist who spends her working life understanding and interpreting other people's lives and motivations.

How well can we ever know each other, even within our closest family? As Julia says towards the end of the book: `People aren't jigsaws. You can't just look for missing pieces to slot in and complete the picture.' She's right, but as this book progresses, more and more pieces do inevitably slot into place. The disparate stories come together and begin to make sense. By the end, we can understand the whys and the wherefores, and there's real hope that the protagonists can too.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-written but a little confusing, 3 Mar 2012
This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
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I enjoyed this book, but I did get a little confused in places. It focuses on two main characters - Julia, a woman struggling with the fact that her daughter chose to live with her uncle rather than with her - and 'You', an anonymous woman sitting in therapy talking about her experiences in World War 2. The story of the woman in therapy gradually unfolds and is by far the more enticing and interesting of the two narratives. I felt I should have twigged who she is a lot earlier than I did, but when i did, I found myself wanting to read the whole book again armed with the knowledge as it makes you see everything written differently. So despite the fact that it takes a while to get going, the book gripped me more than I thought it did!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended, 10 May 2012
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This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
I liked this book so much that it became my choice of presents for Christmas, and some birthdays subsequently - and I've found that everyone I've given it to has also loved it. It's very compelling (I went back over things because I read it quickly initially in a bid to find out out what happened next), but also very psychologically satisfying. It covers family relationships shrewdly and well and links the reader in with vivid evocations of earlier eras (so that although the recipients of my presents were different ages, those who were alive during the second world war and those who were born after commented that it seemed particularly relevant to them). I also felt that it raised, tackled and resolved issues in interesting and satisfying ways. I would really recommend it.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new perspective on events we all think we know, 3 May 2012
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This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
I loved this book. I found it both humorous and deeply moving. Though much of it is set in two quite specific times and places - 1970s suburban England and 1940s Germany, its themes of guilt, secrets, lies, and how childhood fears give rise to adult insecurities which pass down through generations are universal. There are so many things to think about - I have recommended it to many friends and to my my book group.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Powerful, 2 Nov 2011
This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
INTERPRETERS is one of those novels that swiftly lodges itself into your mind and won't let go. INTERPRETERS is very craftily structured keeping the reader one step ahead of the central character and for such a serious book it is actually a real page turner. The prose itself is one of the greatest joys of the book - it is pared back and precise. You know that you are in the hands of a really skilled writer. I read a review of this in the Times Literary Supplement which drew a parallel with THE READER The Reader which seems really appropriate. I really admired and enjoyed INTERPRETERS and urge everyone to read it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unbeatable use of a fiver?, 28 Oct 2011
This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
This has been the most successful book that my book group has read since I have been a member. Everyone enjoyed it, which is a first.

The book has very short chapters; only several pages long. This makes it a delight for reading in snatches.

Sue Eckstein clearly has an appreciation for brevity, clarity, pace, and flow. Anything extraneous has been edited out and what has been kept in has been honed to do exactly what is intended of it. It is a joy to read. Proper writing!

Characters are fully drawn; easily comprehended, life-like, believable, and memorable.

The premise and the plot are masterful. "Easy to read" doesn't mean simplistic. There are themes galore and plot twists and red herrings and 'hidden' connections. Readers who don't mind doing a bit of 'detective' work will be richly rewarded for doing so. Readers who like a bit of a puzzle will be in heaven.

The subject matter, and Sue Eckstein's clear purpose for dealing with it, is wonderful. Many readers will be given a new perspective on something important and previously unconsidered. Many will, I hope, spend a lot of time wondering how they and those close to them might have reacted to the situations and the events that are (very humanely) described.

It is a delight to be able to recommend this book without reservation. If anyone can think of a better use of a fiver, please post immediately!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interpreters, 25 Oct 2011
This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
`Interpreters' is one of the most memorable books I have read in a long while. Firstly it is a really good, well written story about family life with lots of realistic touches and it is quite funny. It also makes interesting observations about us as individuals and in society.
There is a theme running through it that we don't necessarily have a clue about what makes people tick even when they are as close as our mother or father. There is also the interesting insight from several perspectives into what it must have felt like to be German in the last century.
I found the structure of the book quite complicated because there are two main stories going on at the same time as well as several branches of these but it works and it is for a good reason. I ended up reading it twice because I missed a lot of detail the first time.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars thought provoking and evocative, 5 Oct 2011
This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
having grown up in the 40's and 50's I found much of sue ecksteins marvellous novel resonated with my own childhood memories. In particular how little we knew of the wider world, who are parents really were, and the gaping distance between the adult world and childhood comprehension. The Clothes of Heaven was a great read but this second novel really speaks to you.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More than a page-turner, 29 Sep 2011
This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
Like The Cloths of Heaven, this novel is hard to put down. Yet it's a more serious book and tackles some difficult subject matter. The author uses ingenious techniques and excellent dialogue to convey a story that spans four generations and deals with some weighty themes - such as memory, identity and the effect we have on others - with a light touch. She moves deftly between a seldom-seen wartime Germany and an uncomfortably recognisable 1970s Britain, and leaves us questioning how well we ever really know each other, the naive assumptions we make about the world we live in and our resulting complicity in its cruelty. Well-written and thought-provoking.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't put this down, 26 Sep 2011
This review is from: Interpreters (Paperback)
I have been looking forward to this since really enjoying Sue Eckstein's first book Cloth of Heaven and found this did not disappoint in any way. From page one I was fascinated by the characters and found the method of telling the story fascinating and a really complimentary way of bringing out an intricate plot set over some period of time.
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Interpreters by Sue Eckstein
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