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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 November 2015
The measured prose of Sue Eckstein’s second novel, published in 2011, serves to emphasise the loss that the literary world suffered with her early death, aged 54, in 2013. Eckstein juggled her writing with an academic career in medical ethics and humanities. This book won the People's Book Prize, 2012-13.

The book intercuts between the record of a woman’s therapy sessions and the story of Julia Rosenthal, an anthropologist, who is looking back at her childhood and her relationships with her parents and brother Max, and at her own relationship with her daughter Susanna, a textile designer, whose childhood was spent with Max whilst he mother was living and working in Africa. Gradually the links between the two stories are shown and the relationship between the two women becomes evident. In a cleverly-constructed addition, Susanna’s opinion of her mother and Max are revealed in a weekend supplement article ‘Relatively speaking’ that presents unconventional families. For once, the therapy sessions sound genuine and reveal the range of emotions that the woman experiences when sensitively pressed for answers.

Julia’s mother was withdrawn and suffered a series of mental breakdowns whilst her father, an eminent surgeon, was extremely introverted – happiest when working until his drinking led to his compulsory retirement. The marriage was not a happy one, Max slept in a cupboard to avoid the frequent parental arguments. Eckstein’s drawing of character and dialogue is superb, perhaps in part due to her experience of writing radio plays. Not least of these is Julia’s paternal grandfather who comes from a family of eminent German doctors whose driving ambition irreparably damaged her son and his wife.

Julia’s memories are stimulated by returning to her childhood home and finding that it is now owned by someone who remembers her from her schooldays. This allows Julia the slightly unlikely opportunity to wander around the house, remembering more each time she opens another door.

The construction of the book allows the reader to know more than Julia about her parents and their families and as their stories are told the true horrors of their experiences are revealed. In contrast to his rather neurotic sister, Max is at peace with the world, having set aside academic and musical success to help the less well off in society, live in a commune and teach at a Steiner school. The differences in perspective of their childhood and teenage years is revealingly brought out in exchanges between the siblings.

The author provides just enough detail to allow the reader to understand from where Julia and her brother’s adult behavioural characteristics have originated without explaining everything. The ending is especially well-conceived, the characters of the solicitor and his secretary, though fleeting, are crafted with the same degree of understanding as everyone else in the book.

Julia’s mother worked as an interpreter but the plural of the title also refers to the reader’s interpretations of the characters of three generations of this damaged family based upon the information that the author cleverly lays out. The confusion that some reviews describe parallels that of Julia herself as she tries to make sense of her life and how it was influenced by those around her. Not least, she is motivated by the need to ensure that her relationship with her own daughter is not similarly damaged.

This is a poignant story that is especially moving in its descriptions of life in Europe before and during the war, and of how experiences within and outside the home come to influence our behavior and attitudes. I will certainly look out for the author’s debut novel ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ and am grateful to the publishers, Myriad Editions, for bringing this book to the attention of the reading public.
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on 3 March 2012
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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VINE VOICEon 20 November 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Julia Rosenthal has returned to England from Africa. She is on her way to visit her solicitor but as she has time to spare, she decides to take a trip down memory lane and return to her childhood house. She is invited in by the present owner who remembers her from schooldays and as she looks around she reflects on her childhood with her parents and her much loved brother.

At a different time and place, another woman is recalling her childhood through a series of counselling sessions where a lot of secrets are being revealed during her youth in Nazi Germany. She has never told her story to anyone before which stopped her openly engaging with her husband and children.

This brilliantly observed story explores family relationships during the 60s and 70s and when Julia becomes a mother herself, she is determined to have an open and sincere relationship with her own daughter that was denied her during her own childhood.

Sue Eckstein's writing is superb with, succinct, sharply honed, short chapters. I engaged with the main characters, and felt sympathy towards them. I highly recommend this book.
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on 28 October 2011
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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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Seamlessly, tightly wound suspense drama by Sue Eckstein, a novel to be read in one sitting if you can find the time.

"Interpreters" is based on two stories mysteriously interwoven together.

Julia Rosenthal returns to her childhood home and whilst she journeys through
the rooms of her youth the memories come flooding back and questions need to be answered, not always a good thing. Max her brother would rather forget the past and focus on the present.

And in a different place and time, another woman struggles to tell the story of her early years in wartime Germany, gradually revealing secrets that she has carried with her until the past and present collide with unexpected and haunting results.

"Interpreters" is such a compelling read that I have no hesitation in recommending this book. The characters come alive and as you continue reading the two main protagonists keep you in torturous anticipation until the very moment all is revealed.

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on 10 May 2012
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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on 9 April 2013
The Interpreters is a great book. Too many authors these days spend all of their time being clever and overly descriptive all the while avoiding actually telling the story. Eckstein writes concisely and believably, allowing you to connect with the characters as she sticks to the task at hand. The two voices of the book are compelling and believable and the alternating chapter style adds greatly to the tension. The ending is actually an ending... something else a lot of writers seem to struggle with. The characters live on in your mind long after you've finished reading. The Interpreters is a very satisfying read and I highly recommend checking it out.
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on 8 November 2012
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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on 25 October 2011
`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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on 4 November 2011
I really liked the way that the reader views the members of the family through the different narrative voices. The stories of the main characters, and by implication the origins of their unhappiness, are revealed slowly through clever structural devices, such as the dialogue with the therapist/counsellor, the magazine article that end-stops the story, and Julia's visit to her childhood home and the painful memories it sets in motion. The historical dimension of individual suffering and tragedy is powerfully conveyed, and the novel is very good on the experience of being an outsider and an alien, and the hurt caused by rejection (on many different levels). The figure of Julia is an intriguing study of unhappiness and insecurity and it's easy to see a causal link to her parents' unhappy marriage, her father's remoteness and her mother's troubled psyche. But it's a tribute to the subtlety of the novel that Julia's darkness is contrasted with the lightness of her brother, Max: he has endured the same disturbed home life yet has grown into an adult with a gift for living and being happy (and sharing it with others). It should be said that the novel also contains some hugely enjoyable comic moments: not least in the scenes with the German grandmother - "her English fluent and precise, her accent thick as goose fat" - whose life unfolds in well-rehearsed, stories (an unreliable 'interpreter'?) "as though reciting a kind of twentieth-century epic poem." Interpreters is a richly-patterned narrative which balances individual destinies and impersonal historical forces with great assurance. A novel that demands to be re-read and savoured.
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