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My love of Theodor Storm’s C19th novellas is well-documented on this blog, as is my admiration for his English translator, Denis Jackson, whose generous response to my Meet the Translator feature (1, 2, 3) is probably the German Literature Month highlight that will never be surpassed.

Last month I finally got the opportunity to visit Storm country, although with only 3 days, there was not enough time to visit a hallig or wander out to Hattstedt, the setting of Der Schimmelsreiter (Translated by Jackson as The Dykemaster). I did, however, walk 4km along the Husum dyke to the North Sea.

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View of Husum from the dyke

Storm, famously called Husum the grey town by the sea.  Well, there wasn’t much greyness in the 3 days I was there.  Husum presented itself most colourfully, and it would appear I’m not the only person to think so.

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The colourful town by the sea

With a harbour teaming with restaurants and bars serving wonderful fish dishes (best meal of the holiday for €7.00), centuries-old houses and cottages, many decorated with roses or lavender in bloom, and a café serving cakes to die for (my favourite find of the holiday), Husum is a lovely little place.

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It is, of course, made entirely special through its links to Theodor Storm, who lived just around the corner from my accommodation (literally!) . The tourist office makes it easy for those on a Storm pilgrimage, having designed a walk taking in 34 mostly Storm-related sites.  Here are a few highlights.

Firstly places where Storm lived and died.

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Secondly settings in Husum appearing in Storm’s novellas.

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The second set demonstrates the indivisibility of Storm’s narratives and the local landscape.  While Storm’s stories put Husum and the surrounding area on the map in the C19th, they continue to contribute to the success of the area down to this day. 14th September 2017 marks the bicentennial of his birth and Husum will be celebrating its most famous son with style. I’ll party along with the new Denis Jackson translation of Storm’s novella Grieshuus: Chronicle of A Family, which was pre-ordered just as soon as I heard about it!

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Translated from German by Peter Millar

After 1945 and 1946, the third part of my fictional exploration of post-war Hamburg reaches the bitterly cold winter of 1946 and the torridly hot summer of 1947, which seemed designed to inflict further suffering on the population of the devastated city.

The Murderer in Ruins, as ice-cold as the landscape,  is killing people and leaving their naked bodies amidst the rubble of Hamburg.  There are no identifying marks. Neither are there any reports of missing persons.  Not as strange as it sounds, given that Hamburg is full of displaced persons with little to no connection to the surviving home population.  The unfortunate chief inspector Stave is tasked with finding the killer, aided by the British officer, Lieutenant MacDonald, but where to start?

Based on a real case in which the four victims remained as unidentified as the killer, Rademacher’s novel reflects the frustration of a case with no leads, no clues in a city trying to reestablish the rule of  law.  After all, given recent body counts, what difference do 4 more bodies make?  The reader must be patient – very patient – as each assumed lead draws a blank.  But, as the author explained at Newcastle Noir, he has reconstructed the case fictionally in order to provide his own solution.  And so the resolution, in which the crimes of the present are inextricably linked with German crimes of the past,  depends on a chance observation ….

I admit, as a thriller, I struggled with the tortoise-like pace of the investigation, but, as a piece of historical fiction, I was bound by the detail of Rademacher’s reconstruction of post-war Hamburg and the psychologies of the characters. Stave, himself, is damaged goods, having lost his  wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his only son to the Nazis and the Eastern Front.  Despite their ideological estrangement, the father loves his son, desperately combing Hamburg main station for him whenever a train arrives with soldiers returning from the war.  His anxiety is palpable and can only increase when he discovers his son is a POW in Siberia ….

I found Stave a very sympathetic character.  Hamburg is, despite the weather, a hot bed of vice and black-marketeering, and he is a man who understands the importance of overlooking petty crimes to prevent being deflected from the main chase. However, racked with guilt about his wife, anxiety about his son, he is in need of a break. And in Anna, a mysterious aristocratic refugee and skilled black marketeer from East Prussia, it would appear he gets one.  It’s a relationship that seems destined for  greater things, if only he can forget that she tells him nothing of her past …

The exploration of East Prussia and the people who fled to avoid the “Ivans” is continued into the second novel of what will be a trilogy.  The Wolf Children is the collective name given to the mass of child refugees who flowed westwards.  Either orphaned or separated from their parents during the mass exodus at the end of the war, they lived a feral existence in Hamburg, learning to capitalise on opportunities presented by the black market or to engage in child prostitution.  They had their enemies and there was plenty of gang in-fighting,   So when the body of a teenage boy is found lying on top of an unexploded bomb in the harbour area of Hamburg, it is assumed that he is one of them.

Inspector Stave’s second case is a little easier than the first, in that he does at least identify the corpse.  Otherwise the waters are as murky as those of the Elbe, with his prospective Wolf Children witnesses being killed almost as soon as he has talked to them.

Once again I didn’t find the case as enthralling as the social history it explored. The identification of the murderer is quite well-signposted although the motivation for the boy’s killing would be utterly unbelievable if it wasn’t based on obscure historical fact. The things we do not know! Rademacher’s vision for these novels is greater than the murder mystery, and I would say that the scope of this second novel is to investigate the impact of war on the younger generations.  It is quite heartbreaking in places – no more so than in relation to Chief Inspector Stave’s son.

The war may be over but the repercussions are severe.  The world remains fractured, its logic twisted.  Why else could nothing and nobody function without the black market and what are the British occupation forces doing dismantling the remaining machinery at Hamburg docks?  This can hardly be called peace. Personal relationships are suffering also.  Like the temperatures of the summer of 1947, resentments are rising.  Where is this heading?  I can hardly wait for the third instalment!

If 1945 saw the invention of curried sausage in Hamburg, then 1946 saw the British occupation overseeing denazification and the establishment of post-war administration in its allocated area.  Not an easy task, for it is generally accepted that in the post-war carve up of German, France got the wine, America got the scenery, Russia got the lion’s share (and farmland), while Britain got the ruins.

Fair’s fair you might say as Britain was tasked to clean up the areas devastated by British bombs – no more so than in Hamburg. Let’s be more specific there – the working-class areas of Hamburg. A cynical, though perhaps valid, point is made – I forget whether it’s in Rhydian Brook’s novel or in Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins (which I read straight afterwards) – that the British ensured that the beautiful villas on the Elbchausee remained untouched, so that they could requisition them for their officers once the war was won.

Villas on the Elbchaussee, seen from the Elbe

Jenisch Haus, Elbchaussee

This requisitioning of the villas on the Elbe is the foundation on which Brook builds his novel, though the British officer to which Stefan Lubert’s villa is allocated is no ordinary army officer.  Colonel Lewis Morgan is uncomfortable with the high-handedness of Army Command and makes an original proposition – that Lubert and his daughter stay in the villa in the rooms above the grand rooms that his own family will occupy.

He makes the decision unilaterally.  It’s a surprise for his wife when she arrives on German shores with their youngest son, Edmund.  Given that she is still mourning the death of their eldest, killed when their home in Milford Haven was bombed … you can imagine her reaction!

Emotions run high on the German side too, for Lubert lost his wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his teenage daughter, Freda, is going off the rails. While the adults attempt to deal rationally with the situation,  Freda remains hostile. She represents a severe threat to Morgan’s younger son, Edmund, naïve, trusting, inheritor of his father’s golden heart.

Both children become involved with the Trümmelkinder – orphans and displaced kids, living amongst the ruins, and requisitioning the odd empty villa themselves. Most seeking only to scavenge enough to keep themselves alive, though  older ones, wishing for vengeance, are plotting against the occupiers.  Enter Albert ….

Can there ever be a healing for these traumatised folk? A true rapprochement not only between former enemies, but also between husband and wife, now grown apart after an enforced separation of 4 years? Will Captain Morgan’s generosity be repaid in kind, or is betrayal in these circumstances the only expectation?

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I would say this novel is an absorbing personal drama rather than historical fiction. Sufficient background information is provided to provide context, texture and motivation, but it’s not the main focus and so the novel is never weighed down by it.  The consequences of Captain Morgan’s actions are what drive the novel forward; his generosity implausible you might think, but actually it is that of the author’s grandfather.  This was the starting point for the novel, and in the afterword Brook makes clear that the rest of the story, including the dirty linen, is his own invention. Just as well!

When travelling,  it is important to connect with local culture. And so, while in Hamburg, I went on a quest with Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage to discover the origins of that particular culinary delight.  OK, I confess I bought my first one ever for the photo opportunity. Then I ate it. It was fine, but I’m not likely to repeat the experience.  Thankfully the novel was more to my taste.

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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

The rumour is that the curried sausage was invented in Hamburg in the autumn of 1945 by fast food stall owner, Lena Brucker.  In 1989 Uwe Timm’s fictional self, who as a child indulged frequently in this fast food, tracks her down to her old people’s home, with the intention of finding out how she did it.  It takes more time that he allocated, for Lena, now a lonely old woman, knows how to string out her story – particularly, when she has a young man who keeps coming back, bringing delicious German cake to each meeting.

But Lena’s story is no ordinary one and worth the wait (and the calories!) It takes us back to the final days of the Second World War, when Lena (43) meets the young naval officier, Hermann Bremer (24), and, seemingly on a whim, colludes in his desertion.  She keeps him hidden in her flat, but although the war is almost over, this is still a dangerous action.  Neighbours still spy on each other and are quick to denounce traitors to the authorities.

Once the war is over though, Lena decides that she would like to keep Hermann to herself a little longer and so, using the same creativity she will employ in the creation of her culinary masterpiece, she invents a continuation of the war, complete with manoevres and strategies, to convince Hermann that he must stay put. Of course, this is a tactic doomed at some point to failure, but Lena enjoys herself (and Hermann) while it lasts.

The surprise return of her womanising, free-loading husband after six years forces Lena to recognise her desire for independence, and once he is out of the way, she embarks on the journey – via barter and the black market – that, step by step and by fortuitous accident,  leads to her famous invention.

I’m remembering this story as a light-hearted one, which is strange given the backdrop of war-torn Hamburg, the dangers of harbouring a deserter, and the anathema that Lena must face from her British army employer when the horrors of the concentration camps become clear.  I think that is primarily due to Lena’s resilience and indomitable spirit, refusing to let history weigh her down, continuing to achieve the seemingly impossible.  Because how else do you explain a blind old woman retaining the capacity to knit a multi-coloured intarsia from memory, weaving in the clouds and sunshine of her own life along the way?

June 2017 Wrap-Up

I’m currently on the road, so a picture of the 10 books I read in June will follow in due course. (Added 09 08.17)

Books read June 2017

 They are books 54-63 listed in the Read 2017 widget on the right.   There’s a distinctively German feel to books 58 onwards, and that’s because I’m in Germany, currently touring Schleswig-Holstein.  This is a new German state to me, bringing my tally to 14/16.  I hope to make it 16/16 before Brexit.  Thereafter, who  knows?

This trip has diverted me fron my Tournament of Books, but, with only 3 books remaining to be read from the 22 contenders, I should complete this in July. There’s been some fine reading amongst this selection of books, although my favourites (The Wednesday ClubParadise Lodge, The Unseen and The Good People) haven’t matched the actual winners in any of the respresented awards.  Still I am looking forward to amazement/disgruntlement to come when I do catch up with the official winning titles.

The. Tournament of Books served a key purpose in making me focus on the shortlisted books I already had to hand and thus helped to keep me within my purchasing targets.  I have to confess though that that resolve has withered during the past week in Husum, where I have discovered a beautiful edition of Theodor Storm’s novellas, in which the text is accompanied by photographs of the places in question.  I have limited myself to 3 purchases, but suspect that this is a collection set to grow.

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But enough of the pleasures to come, here are the blogging pleasures from June.

This Census Taker – China Miéville

A Country Road, A Tree – Jo Baker

Golden Hill – Francis Spufford

The Unseen – Roy Jacobsen

The Good People – Hannah Kent

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Dorthe Nors

imageBook of the Month: I thought my novel of the year so far, Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen, was going to run away with this, and then I read James Hawes”s The Shortest History of Germany.  To say it was a revelation is to say the least! More to follow after Hawes’s event at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August.

Final scores for June
Total YTD: 57 read, 6 audio books, 6 DNF
Total for May 2017: 10 read, 0 audio books, 0 DNF

imageShortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize
Translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra

As a veteran of the hapless driving lesson (I almost put the car in a ditch within 5 minutes of sitting behind the wheel for the first time, then drove my driving instructor to bang his head against a brick wall – of his own volition – 10 minutes before my driving test, passed first time incidentally!), I was looking forward to the misadventures of Dorthe Nors’s heroine.  Could they possibly live up to mine?

Well, yes, but in an entirely different way.  Sonja’s technical battles with the motor car are not helped by a driving instructor, who wants only to talk about herself whilst driving the car by proxy.   The mysteries of the gear box are solved only when Sonja – after much soul-searching – requests a change of instructor, but Folke brings with him a whole new set of issues ….

The shifting of gears is, of course, a metaphor for Sonja’s life.  Now 40,  she has been living in Copenhagen for 20 years, but it has yet to become home.  She’s a fish out of water, really, unable to adapt like her friend, Molly, who has become quite the city girl.  A shy, introverted soul, struggling to cope with the brash people surrounding her, establish new friendships, and to reconcile with her estranged sister, Kate, it comes as a surprise that Sonja fills her days translating the violent crime novels of the fictional Swedish author, Gösta Svensson. The content of these is such a dizzying contrast to the Sonja’s inner narrative, it’s small wonder she is afflicted with positional vertigo.

She needs a moment of illumination.  Which, because this is a gentle, comical novel about contemporary loneliness, must arrive in a gentle, comical way to be fitting.  It is a moment so well judged, it will become one of my favourites of the reading year.  All I’m saying is that it involves a traffic light!

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is easy reading. I suspect the enjoyment factor will be determined by the reader’s reaction to Sonja.  I was initially exasperated by her passivity, but found myself empathising more than I expected towards the end.  She’s a poor, wee soul, needing to find her way home. I’m glad that Nors made it possible.


This post is stage 9 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again With Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: USA

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Courtesy of  www.walterscottprize.co.uk

I have no idea, but let me tell you of my hopes.

It’s testament to the quality of contemporary historical fiction (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that this year’s Walter Scott shortlist consists of 7 titles, not the usual 6.  So as the judges were having problems at the shortlist stage, how are they going to determine the winner?  Because there’s no easily separating the five I’ve read.  Deliberations could go something like this:

Sebastian Barry’s already won once, and Days Without End is a much better novel, so he deserves to win it again!

Rose Tremain’s historical novels have won every other prize going. It’s about time she won this one. Let’s declare The Gustav Sonata the winner!

It’s a travesty that Hannah Kent’s first novel wasn’t even shortlisted.  Let’s make up for that now by declaring The Good People the winner!

There’s nothing more powerful that showing the impact of historical events through the microcosm of an individual’s experience.  Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is our winner.

Our previous winners contain huge amounts of misery and political intrigue. Let’s have a laugh for a change.  The prize goes to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill!

I obviously can’t advance any arguments (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) for The Vanishing Futurist and Mothering Sunday, except that the former is in my TBR and the latter is not.

For me, it is a question of which novel is capable of stealing the prize from Sebastian Barry, whose novel has already beaten Francis Spufford to the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and contains awe-inspiring passages of intense luminosity. And yet my doubts as to historical authenticity linger.  The same is true of Spufford’s Golden Hill, which also contains improbable plot twists, but what can you expect from a novel that is primarily a brilliant homage to the 18th-century picaresque novel?  And yet it provides a detailed and spiritual portrait of New York, when it was just a small town.

imageI suspect either Barry or Spufford – if the judges decide to go for the highly original choice –  will take the prize, but, having just finished The Good People, I’m willing Hannah Kent to win.  In short, her reimagining of the events leading up to the tragic death of 4-year old Michael Kelliher in the pre-famine rural Ireland of 1826 is everything I want my historical fiction to be. I need a full interpretation of how things came to be within the context of prevailing societal norms, taboos, beliefs and superstitions.  Kent excels at writing into the gaps of history here – court records tell what happened, not why the two women accused of murdering the child acted as they did.  I was fascinated by the effective and the non-effective herbal remedies at the heart of this novel, and by the conflict between Christianity and pagan folklore. (And I railed at both from time to time.)  The cadence and lilt of Kent’s prose – at times just as lyrical as Barry’s – held me in that time and place. I forgot my own surroundings.  I could feel the cold, hear the fires crackling, empathise with the despair, even as I refused to condone the behaviour.  And I watched as first an individual woman, then an entire town lost their rational minds.  With only hints as to true nature of Michael  Kelliher’s condition, The Good People was puzzling, terrifying, emotional amd utterly absorbing. It well deserves the accolade I hope it will receive tonight.

P.S Even if the judges don’t agree with me on this, they must surely grant that the UK hardback is the most beautiful on the shortlist. From the embossed golden leaf on the cover to the swoonsworthy deckled edges, ’tis an absolute joy to behold and read.