Every season there’s a publisher’s catalogue that stands out from the rest (in terms of numbers of books I want to read). For the 2019 spring season, that was the Salt catalogue. It was always going to be special – they are celebrating 20 years as an independent publisher this year. What better way to celebrate along with them, than to read some of their spring publications. So last week, I went on a virtual mini-European tour with three cracking reads.
Let’s set off from Scotland.
In A Perfect Explanation Eleanor Anstruther fictionalises the true story of her father being sold to his aunt for £500. Her motivation for writing was not condemnation, but understanding. What motivates a mother to do such a thing?
Enid Campbell was an aristocrat with fractious relationships with her mother and her sister. Indeed the sibling rivalry was intense, despite the fact that Enid was the beauty. To escape the claustrophobia of her family, she married “beneath herself”. Unfortunately to a man to whom she was not well-suited. Motherhood followed. First a son, then a daughter. Then a tragic accident necessitated the bearing of another male child to succeed as heir. Such was the weight of expectation on Enid, that she complied. This second son, Ian, was Anstruther’s father.
By this time, Enid’s mental state, always spurious, was not as it should be. Guilt, grief, post-natal depression, her poor marriage all taking their toll. No sympathy, recognition or help from the family at all. You can’t blame her for what she does next.
She ran away – the girl who had ambitions to be a nun fled to a Christian Scientist commune. Neither her husband or family attempted to follow or find her. When she returned two years later, circumstances were not as she imagined. A fierce power game began between her and her sister for custody of her youngest son. The family needed to ensure an appropriate upbringing for his future inheritance. (He was to become the 8th Baronet of Balcaskie and 13th Baronet of Anstruther.)
Note, they were only fighting about the heir. The family were happy to abandon the other two to Enid, a woman they tried to prove an unsuitable mother. I’ll leave the outcome of the court case for you to discover, but I will say that the chapters that describe the family washing its dirty linen in public are rivetting. (Particularly the – I would say, deserved – brutal character assassinations of those involved.)
The outcome was a shock – to all concerned.; Enid unable to cope with the aftermath. This lead to the fateful transaction.
Anstruther tells the story in two timeframes, that of the interwar years interwoven with the events of one day in 1964, as Enid is approaching the end of her life. The son she sold, and has never seen since, is about to visit her, together with her dutiful daughter. He wants something from her, she needs something from him. In her author’s note, Anstruther says that she wrote to vindicate Enid, but at some point Enid turned cold. Yes, I lost sympathy too, but not at the point I was expecting. The other surprise was how I didn’t warm to the adult Ian either. His behaviour on meeting his mother appalled me. It really was all about inheritance. Yes, as cold-blooded as that.
Next stop Ukraine.
Snegurochka – what an intriguing title! The snow maiden who disappears turns out to be Rachel, another troubled young mother who moves to the newly independent Ukraine with her young child to join her freelance journalist husband, Lucas. She finds herself disapproved of by the locals – why would you choose to bring a young child from a land of plenty to this grey land of scarcity, blighted by the cancers of Chernobyl? And if you do, you’d certainly wrap him up properly for the weather!
Isolated by her lack of the language, her husband’s constant chasing after the next story, the lack of empathy from other ex-pats (all of whom are childless) and the compulsive habits she develops to cope, Rachel finds her world becoming increasingly claustrophobic. Slowly, ever so slowly, she begins to make contacts, develop acquaintances, if not friends exactly.
Of course, not all are good for her. There’s the wife of the goods smuggler – her life of luxury contrasting starkly with Rachel’s cash-strapped existence on the 13th floor of a concrete apartment block. And Mykola, the mafioso, who takes an unhealthy and threatening interest in her. Her husband, Lucas, is no use at all, even if sometimes his motivations are good. (Choosing the flat with the balcony for example. Unfortunately Rachel keeps seeing herself drop her child from it ….)
Help comes from an unexpected quarter in the form the old wizened caretaker of the apartment block. Nothing dramatic, just enough to show that difficulties can be eased with a little encouragement from fellow humans. For this is a realistic portrayal of the difficulties of life in early 1990s Kiev. Heneghan lived there herself at that time; those are her own photographs on the cover. That experience shows in the tiny details, that consolidates the authentic reproduction of the place. The one that made me smile: the imaginative use of After Eight pouches.
So what actually drives the plot forward? Nothing really. While there is an element of mystery in the hatred between Mykola and the caretaker, which ultimately provides us with a second Snegurochka and a serendipitous connection between Heneghan’s and Anstruther’s novels, it is not a major strand. It’s really all about Rachel, the difficulties of everyday life in 1990s Kiev, and the need for support from other humans. I was fascinated.
Finally to my favourite place on earth, Germany (yes, all of it!)
Meike Ziervogel’s 5th novel, Flotsam, at 109 pages, is more of a novella, than a novel.
Ziervogel keeps her works short. She likes to tells just what is necessary and let the reader fill in the details, join the dots. I’ll be honest, sometimes that doesn’t work for me. I thought her previous work, The Photographer, needed more flesh on the bones. Happy to report that I have no such issues with Flotsam, which was quite a rich reading experience given its brevity.
Hailing from Northern Germany, Ziervogel knows and loves the landscape well. It shows. There are some beautifully atmospheric descriptions of the constantly changing mud flats (the Wattenmeer), mirroring the desolation of her characters’ inner lives.
Divided into two sections, it tells of a mother and daughter, living an isolated life in a small cottage on the coast. The first section is told from the daughter’s point-of-view, beginning with a fatal accident in which she loses her older brother, Carl. Thereafter, some rather surreal pages follow in which Trine tries to keep the accident secret from her mother, who appears to let her kids do as they please. When she is sober, she spends her time combing the beaches, collecting all the flotsam she can find. The cottage and the shed are stuffed full with her treasures.
Switching to Trine’s school life, we see the girl struggling to make friends, bullied and cajoled about her brother, whom no-one believes exists. It’s only through the invention of increasingly wild stories and some quite outrageous behaviour that Trine wins acceptance. And a happy ending of sorts.
But the question about Carl’s existence remains ….
… and is answered in the second half which going back in time to the war years to tell Trine’s mother’s story, her loneliness in marriage, and the havoc created by the Nazi regime. No details here but Anna’s seemingly less than caring behaviour and her emotional distance become explicable. Then one day, she picks up the most significant piece of flotsam imaginable. Will this finally disperse her grief-stricken daze?
As Trine’s story unfolds, there seem to be more differences than similarities between mother and daughter. During one particularly brazen episode, Trine wonders where she gets it from, That becomes perfectly clear during Anna’s narrative. Like mother, like daughter indeed!
By parts earthy, by parts literary, I loved the mix. And the showing, not telling of the fragile psychologies of the female characters. Also and particularly the symbolism of the shipwreck that lies on the coast. That the novel(la) begins and ends with this is quite telling.