logo-cropped

Nottingham’s independent bookshop | 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH | 0115 8373097

Book Reviews

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree, £9.99)

Patience is a virtue… After thirty-five years, the tiny team at Peepal Tree has finally hit the big time, with their novel Mermaid of Black Conch winning the Costa Book Award at the same time as their Green Unpleasant Land, on the links between slavery and country houses, is debated, well, attacked, by the paragons of virtue at the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. I’m not sure if the DM/DT are angry that someone has noticed these links or whether they are angry that someone did not think such links were a good thing…. This less than two years since Roger Robinson won the TS Eliot Prize for poetry with Portable Paradise, Peepal Tree’s previous best seller.
For Robinson, his portable paradise, stitched into his family memory is “white sands, green hills and fresh fish.” He could easily have been describing the small island of Black Conch. There, in 1976 David Baptiste was out in his boat doing a bit of leisurely fishing, in his favourite quiet area, playing his guitar and smoking the odd spliff. And it is there he finds an audience – the mermaid who comes to listen. To be honest I had doubts about the book in advance, well, mermaids… but I was hooked. As indeed was the mermaid who would get caught by some Yankee sports’ fishermen. Roffey’s description of their struggle – or rather the struggle of the two white men, first the son, then the father – to reel her in was gripping. They had to be tied into the “fighting chair” as they would to bring in, say, a marlin. But this was a mermaid. Their crew of local fishermen were aghast, they wanted none of it, but the father could see the money that the mermaid would bring him.
The mermaid is hung up on the dock but is rescued by Baptiste who takes her home, putting her in his bath. However, this was no ordinary mermaid for she was Aycayia, one of the original residents of the Caribbean who had been condemned to roam the sea for thousands of years by a spell. She speaks no English, remembering only a few words of her original language. Nor does she know anything about clothes, of cooked food or of, well, how to go to the toilet when you no longer live in the sea. The book is earthy. Aycayia gradually turns back into a woman – her scales fall off, her tail rots, her feet and hands become less webby, but she never quite loses her mermaid characteristics including her odour of the sea.
Here the other two main characters of the book appear – Arcadia and her born-deaf son Reggie, who communicates in sign language. Arcadia is the only white person on the island, the last of the Rain family which once owned most of the area. But Arcadia speaks the Caribbean dialect of Black Conch, which suffuses the book. She comes to the door with a poetry book by Derek Walcott in her hand. The father of her child is Black. She has no interest in her estate, selling it off cheaply in parcels, bothering little about collecting rent, but there is still the issue of the rich woman on the island being white. Arcadia and Reggie help Aycayia – Arcadia teaches her English, Reggie sign language. She becomes his friend.
How does all this work out? I can’t do spoilers here but can a mermaid really adapt to life in the small town of St Constance on Black Conch? What do the neighbours think – it’s not like you can keep the whole incident a secret. So read the book. It’s the best novel about fish since Moby Dick.
Despite my reserve because of the subject I was able to suspend belief and cared about all the characters and whether the growing love (OK, a bit of a spoiler) between David and Aycayia could possibly work. There is drama in that Aycayia still feels the call of the sea and those who condemned her to live forever in the sea are watching and angry.
This is Monique Roffey’s seventh book and the one that will have made her name, being already shortlisted for other prizes. She will be reading and being interviewed by Deirdre O’Byrne at a Five Leaves online event on 14 April.

The book is available here:fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-mermaid-of-black-conch-a-love-story/

Ross Bradshaw

Dead Land by Sara Paretsky (Hodder, £8.99)

Crime writer Sara Paretsky has caused me many late nights and forced me to lie in many lukewarm and colder baths down the years. She writes short, often wittily-titled, chapters that have a cliff-hanger component that make you think “I’ll just read one more…” again and again. Her latest paperback, her 24th, is no exception.
Paretsky’s female Private Eye is V.I. Warshawski and her milieu is Chicago. Dead Land is up to date with a throwaway comment about the legal problems of a couple of Trump’s advisers and a sub-plot about armed militias and people believing right-wing conspiracies. But some things don’t change: her support group of an elderly doctor and a cranky neighbour and her frustrating relationship with a local journalist. And the basic storyline of big money ruining her city. Somehow you just know that if Warshawski turns up at a small community meeting about Chicago maybe redeveloping a shoreline wildlife park that dark money has changed hands, someone will be bumped off and that Warshawski will be in peril. Formulaic? Maybe, but you get to know the city – you can almost hear the planes coming in to land at O’Hare – and in this book she causes you to search your memory about what the Chicago School of economists were up to in Chile in the 1970s because the past is never just the past. The Chicago Boys – as they were called – have a lot to answer for.
Chicago is of course not Nottingham but is it really true that heads of Council departments (in this case Parks) go round with hired muscle and police protection? Maybe, it is America… It’s certainly scary when she includes the sentence, justifying her unofficial crime fighting that “Chicago police clear only 17% of our homicides each year.”
If I had a criticism it is that like other semi-formulaic books (I’m thinking of Robert Parker) there comes a moment when you feel you have had enough; enough of Warshawski’s neighbour Mr Contreras and her guardian angel Charlotte Herschel (both of whom must be about 105 by now), her running to the Lake with her dogs, the mentions of her opera-loving late mother and her late Chicago policeman father.
But after a few books away, this is what drew me back, comfort reading, and the promise of a bath that starts off hot and ends lukewarm at best.
Ross Bradshaw
Orderable here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/dead-land-v-i-warshawski-20/

The SS Officer’s Armchair: in search of a hidden life by Daniel Lee (Cape, £20)

This book starts at a dinner party. A new acquaintance of the author described how her mother had take an armchair for repair in Holland, and the upholsterer had found a pile of Nazi documents sown into the upholstery to his consternation and to the astonishment of the chair’s owner. Daniel Lee, a historian, immediately wanted to know more – what were the papers, what was the story.
His new friend’s mother had bought the chair second hand in Czechoslovakia many years before. Soon Daniel Lee was examining the documents which had belonged to a Nazi lawyer, Robert Griesinger and was off on in pursuit of the story. Who was he? Did he survive the war? Why did he hide the papers? Did he have any living relatives?
It turns out that Griesinger was a genuine Nazi, a member of the SS, though part of their civilian branch. He was also a war criminal, but in the scale of things, not a serious player. Lee was able to trace the children of Griesinger – indeed, by then he knew more about their father than they did. Pre-war, Griesinger was active in the SS mostly in Württemberg in Swabia, and their records show that the SS behaved in many ways like, say the Rotary Club but with added marching, singing and racism. They had a community function, in one case building a new house for a member’s family who had died in an accident.
The membership rules, however, of the SS were strict – marriages had to be approved and a full family tree of the partners had to be presented to ensure there was no trace of a genetic illness or Jewish blood hidden in the background. It was still unclear what would happen later. In 1936 the – now Nazi – government even removed anti-Semitic posters for the period of the Olympics, replacing them with adverts for Coca Cola. International image still mattered and the SS did love sport.
Of course it got darker. Spoiler alert – Griesinger did not survive. He died, or was killed, in mysterious circumstances in Prague at the end of the war. His wife and children made it back to Germany, with difficulty – but he stayed at his post after it was all over and the Czech people arose against both the occupying Germans and the ethnic German community in Czechoslovakia. There were war crimes there too.
What makes this book stand out from other war books is that it concentrates on the life and career of a middle-ranking Nazi official. He was not a monster, neither was he just compromised as he was a career Nazi by choice. What also makes this book stand out is the astonishing amount of information Lee was able to find out. Every move Griesinger made was tracked, every house he lived in was examined from the outside (and sometimes from the inside) and through its extant records of residence. It seems that Germany kept everything – thus Lee was able to examine internal references and reports on Griesinger’s work. Within the dusty files of the Ministry of Economics and Labour he was able to find documents that Griesinger wrote, including, bizarrely, correspondence about recycling beer bottles in 1944 when, it appears Bulgaria was “the only country not to return bottles”. Meanwhile, across Europe…
There is also some irony – is that the right word? – that Griesinger’s father’s family came from America, migrating back to Germany. His father had been born in 1871 in New Orleans. The family had been involved in slavery, both as owners and – there’s no surprise – fathers of children. Griesinger, the Nazi, had Black relatives in America. Lee was able to trace them and met one relative, Marshall Honoré  Jnr., then in his mid-90s. Honoré fought at Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Rhine in spring 1945, penetrating deep into Germany fighting the Nazis. Here the word irony works; his unit was segregated.
 
Ross Bradshaw
The SS Officer’s Armchair is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-ss-officers-armchair-in-search-of-a-hidden-life/

Mudlarking: lost and found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

New Year – new hobby? How about mudlarking? First find a big tidal river which has a couple of thousands of years of human habitation alongside – the Thames will do nicely. Get yourself some maps and tide calendars and a knowledge of history. Get your eye in, you only have to look. And you are all set. Within minutes you’ll likely pick up a bit of an old clay pipe, some nails, and, if you are not careful, an unpleasant water-borne disease, a welly-boot full of stinking mud and be trapped by the sea coming in.
You will need a long-suffering partner – Lara Maiklem’s wife has only visited the foreshore a couple of times ever – who doesn’t mind you coming up smelling of the riverbank and stuffing your house with twenty years’ worth of bits of broken crockery, dolls’ heads and bits of metal type. For Lara is the sort of person who writes ” I came to bricks fairly late, having ignored them for many years, but they are surprisingly interesting…”
Whatever we have used, it has ended up in the Thames. Chucked in or dumped, mostly, as sewerage is a fairly modern invention. Or lost. At one time there were 12,000 wherries operating on the Thames, the taxi service of the day, and things – and sometimes people – fell overboard.
From time to time Maiklem over-uses “perhaps” in imagining who might have held the 400 year old item that has just surfaced. She is on more solid ground when she researches the real stories of coins, tokens, beads, pin-heads, pipe-bowls and the former buildings that lined the Thames giving rise to the particular rubbish outside their premises. Because mostly this is the rubbish of the past, buried in mud for hundreds of years. The mud preserved the material as it was without oxygen, which sometimes meant that items that surfaced would break down on contact with the air and fresh water.
The history of mudlarking is not a great one – it’s the story of the London poor who would scrabble for bits of metal, coal and the debris of ships and rubbish generally to survive. This at a time when the Thames was the heart of our Empire’s shipping and an open sewer. Indeed, as late as 1957 the water of the Thames was considered to be dead. Even now there are places on the foreshore where the soil contains “asbestos, lead, arsenic and cadmium. It is filled with poisons and carcinogens…” And there is our modern additions of plastic and micro-plastics too.
Maiklem is one of the mudlarkers who uses her eyes, not metal detectors, scanning the ground carefully – mostly down on her knees wearing fetid kneepads and only slightly less fetid overalls. (Please don’t sit next to me on the tube…) She is critical of the mudlarkers who use metal detectors or who dig deep in the foreshore, their holes encouraging erosion. There’s a wonderful section of photos in her book showing some of her finds – and I would like to see more.
The best story, however, is hinted at on the cover. The title page, the running heads of the book and some of the text is typeset in Dove. The owners of the Dove typeface (in the days of metal type) fell out and every bit of it was chucked in the Thames in 1916. One hundred years later a designer wanted to recreate Dove and started trawling the banks around Hammersmith where he knew it had been dumped. After twenty minutes at low tide he found the letter “i”. Of the 500,000 bits of type thrown in the river, with the help of some divers, he found 150 or so – the site had had concrete poured on it during a bridge repair. But he did not find a comma – Maiklem did.
Another reason to read this book is to learn more about the history and geography of London – the most tantalising part being the story of the Tower Beach where 1500 barges of yellow Essex sand was dumped on the foreshore in 1934 to create a “London Riviera”. In 1935 100,000 Londoners went to their own “seaside” to build sandcastles, watch Punch and Judy shows and the like. It was closed in 1971 due to concerns about pollution and all that now remains is a much smaller half-moon of yellow sand, the rest washed away by the tide.
Ross Bradshaw
Mudlarking is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/mudlarking/

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Penguin, £9.99)

Hisham Matar is probably best known for his 2017 bookThe Return: fathers, sons and the land in between which describes his post-Gaddafi return to Libya to find out what happened to his father, a victim of Gaddafi’s rule.
Following his father’s disappearance, Matar became interested, obsessed with the paintings of the Siena School, religious paintings from around the fourteenth century. After The Return came out – still grieving, he finally visits Siena, and this 2019 memoir is of the month he spent there alone. It’s a short book, about art, about grief, about being alone and being a stranger in a strange city.
Matar makes his purpose clear, in this beautiful book. He finds a peaceful spot in the local cemetery where he was “… the mourner without a grave”, planning to “sit for a few moments and listen to the birds.” Going on he writes “I knew then that I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here.”
But the book is also about art and includes many of the Sienese paintings, which he analyses, particularly the Good/Bad Government frescos, which stretch to 14.5 metres in the room that features Lorenzetti’s ‘Allegory of good government’ – part of which is pictured here. There’s also the “unsettling” ‘Madonna del latte’ by the same painter, which is as unsettling as he describes it. The publisher has done a good job on the reproductions in this inexpensive paperback, especially in bringing out detail, but of course I long to see the originals. Matar spent so long with the paintings that the guards gave him a folding chair so that he could spend even longer in front of a picture, which he then did. “Didn’t we tell you?” said one.
Matar did not remain completely alone. Hearing a family speak Arabic, he greets them and is invited home by Adam and his children Kareem and Salma. Though from Jordan – half a continent away from Libya – they welcomed him as if family, explaining the town’s complex contrada system of neighbourhood loyalties and competition. He walked back from the evening he spent with them holding their kindness to “my chest as though it were a precious object I had been given.”
Matar ends the book, back in New York, reunited with his partner Diana, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the Sienese painting ‘Paradise” by Giovanni di Paolo, painted around 1445, to return there weekly “as though we were going to see an old friend”.
Ross Bradshaw
A Month in Siena is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/a-month-in-siena/

Agent Sonya by Ben McIntyre (Viking, £25)

“Ursula never saw Richard Sorge again. Perhaps their romantic relationship was already over, but for Ursula it never really ended.
Ursula returned to her dreary dinner guests. No one noticed that her heart was broken.”

Hmm. This is the story of Ursula Kuczynski, a colonel in the Red Army and one of the world’s most successful spies – Agent Sonya of the title and of the sub-title Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy. It’s not an untold story, or at least some of it is not untold, not least by Kuczynski herself in her autobiography, though this is the fullest version we are likely to read. Kuczynski was a German Jewish Communist who worked in several countries – including in a bookshop in America (you really have to watch that type) and spied in most of them. She was the handler of Klaus Fuchs and Melissa Norwood (the subject of the book The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op) and her work ensured that the Soviet Union was privy to the detail of Western plans for nuclear weapons, enabling the East and West to have Mutually Assured Destruction. She would argue that this helped create peace, or at least that it was able to defend the Soviet Union.

As the sub-title and the sub-Mills and Book opening quote suggest, this is a typical Ben McIntyre book aimed at the popular market. No bad thing, but over-writing is over-writing and we could have done with less. The story, however, fascinates and McIntyre calms down a bit.

Sonya – one of her many names – was a radio operator, a courier, an organiser and a handler. Her life was often at risk. Richard Sorge, a fellow spy mentioned earlier was tortured and hung, in Japan, and that could have been her fate too. She was, however, possibly even more at risk from her own side – on pages 138/139 there are details of friends, fellow spies, comrades “swept away in the butchery” that was Stalin’s Russia in 1937 and 1938, the period of the Great Purges that did so much to weaken the Soviet Union as the war with Germany approached. She was in the Soviet Union during this period and was only too aware of the fate of others. Despite this she kept the faith and her big successes were still to come.

In England, as Mrs Burton of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford she lived a quiet life, cycling around (taking in dead letter drops), drinking tea with her neighbours and making scones. Throughout her spying career she got away with a lot as a mother of three, because spies are never mothers of three. Yet sixteen days after the top secret “Quebec Agreement” between Churchill and Roosevelt to collaborate on building the atom bomb the Soviet Union knew, thanks to Sonia. This was before the Cold War when Britain, the Soviet Union and America were allies.

One of the particularly fascinating parts of the book is about the “Hammer” group of spies. This was a group of exiled German Communists parachuted into Germany to act as spies towards the end of the war, who would report on troop movements and provide information for bombing missions to the Americans. Their direct command was the OSS – the American intelligence organisation, the Organisation of Strategic Services – but they were under the real control of Sonya.

After Klaus Fuchs was arrested. Sonya skipped the country, moving to the German Democratic Republic. Although she had been under suspicion, nobody here knew of her real role in the UK. Or did they? McIntyre revisits whether Roger Hollis, the big cheese in the UK spy world, was really a double agent. Whatever, she escaped to a desk job in the GDR but was caught up in the Government anti-Semitic hysteria in the GDR in 1953. Astonishingly, a new career awaited as she became a successful writer – “Ruth Werner, novelist.” She’d outwitted everyone.

Available from Five Leaves here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/agent-sonya-lover-mother-soldie…/

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitgerald ((Oldcastle, £7.99)

Next year Michael Farris Smith is publishing a prequel to The Great Gatsby, focusing on the life of Nick Carraway, who was Jay Gatsby’s neighbour in the original and the book’s narrator. Seeing it announced encouraged me to re-read Fitzgerald’s book, having only a half memory of languid women of the Jazz Age and the sort of parties I would rather die than attend, hosted by Gatsby. I should say, if you have not read the book or seen the film, there are spoilers below.
I’d like to think that when I first read the book – decades ago – I was brought up short on page 32 when one Tom Buchanan starts talking about The Rise of Coloured Empires, whose author “… has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.” How very QAnon. Tom then, is a baddie. His wife Daisy does not exactly share his views, nor are they shared by the narrator Nick, a distant relative of Daisy’s but Nick knows nobody other than them, having pitched up on Long Island working as a bond salesman. No, me neither, but it’s legit if not exactly productive employment.
Nick lives across the Sound from Daisy and Tom, having rented a place next to Jay Gatsby’s pile where every weekend high society turns up to party. “…the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gullick the state senator and Newton Orchid who controlled Films Par Excellence… And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who strangled his wife. … and the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers…” Fitzgerald must have had fun with this two page long list. “All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.” But none of them really knew who Gatsby was, or, more importantly for those at the sort of superspreader parties Trump would love, where he got his money. There were rumours disguised as facts, facts disguised as rumours but it was unlikely to be through honest toil. Bootlegging maybe.
Though Nick hated the parties, he was fascinated by Gatsby, who, it turned out was in love with Daisy and had carried a torch for her for five years some of which he spent at war in Europe, then time at “Oggsford” as the one person who seemed to know him explained. Nick, Nick’s languid girlfriend, Tom and Daisy and Gatsby circle round each other. Tom has a mistress, the wife of a garage owner and, after a row, Daisy runs her down while driving Gatsby’s car, killing her. It’s an accident but Daisy and Gatsby hit and ran. The garage owner traces Gatsby and, thinking it must have been him driving his own car, shoots him, then shoots himself. Look, I said there were spoilers.
Nick is desolate, and does the rounds to get people to attend the funeral. No-one comes, save Gatsby’s father – an ordinary Joe from out of town, still believing that Gatsby had done good, Nick and one of the odder party guests, and that’s it. Even the one person who seemed to be a real friend, who’d talked about “Oggsford” and was rumoured to be the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, declined to attend. “I can’t do it – I can’t get mixed up in it.” Nick “felt a certain shame for Gatsby”. It was time for everyone to move on, including Nick who decided to go back West and Daisy, who loved Gatsby, but had definitely moved on, still with Tom. It was over.
Gatsby’s world made me shudder, as much as I shudder when I see the celeb focused mags on newsagent shelves, and when reading of the parties attended by our own High Society, the Camerons, the Johnsons, the Lebedevs, the Elton Johns… it would be easy to draw up one’s own two page list.
The book still holds up.
Fitzgerald is out of copyright, so there are several editions of the book, but this one’s cover is a homage to the original of 1925. It also includes an intro by Michael Farris Smith and a promotional chapter for his forthcoming Nick, the prequel.
The Great Gatsby is orderable here – https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-great-gatsby/
Ross Bradshaw

Bookshop Tours of Britain, by Louise Boland (Fairlight, £16.99)

I have one serious complaint about this book, which is that Louise Boland never took me with her on her journeys around the bookshops of Britain. Not that I have ever met her or knew anything much about the book in advance, but I can still bear a grudge, surely.
This would be the holiday of a lifetime, guaranteed to break the bank as you can’t really visit a new bookshop without buying a book… And the tour covers hundreds of bookshops – and, along the way, country houses, museums and other places of tourist interest.
Her trip north includes The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool which is also a hotel and a pub, while her most southerly stop is The Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance. Both these shops hold regular live events (or did, before COVID) and both these towns manage to support two independents, also covered in the book. Largely the book is about independents, for obvious reasons, but there are features on the biggest Waterstones in Piccadilly, Foyles, Oxford Blackwells and Hatchards. Hatchards, owned by Waterstones, is well-known to be the oldest continually operated bookshop in the UK – but it isn’t! Step forward Whitie’s Books and Crafts in the Scottish Border town of Peebles, trading since 1791 and run by the same family since 1899.
Whitie’s doesn’t have the biggest book stock in the world, but it does also sell wool and has a haberdashery department. Maybe that’s a Scottish Border thing as Main Street Trading – a really excellent bookshop, by the way, also sells tableware and antiques. Other bookshop items around the country include globes and (oh dear, how do you stop the staff getting too enthusiastic for the product) ice-cream.
Many of the shops are in small towns or villages and operate from attractive, sometimes historic premises and this book is full of photos. I’m not sure if Bookshop Tours qualifies as a vade-mecum as it is heavy, printed on art paper to show the photos to their advantage. It’s beautiful. Not every bookshop is visited – I was hoping to see something of the Stromness Bookshop on Orkney, which orders more books published by Five Leaves than just about anywhere. And locally her tour didn’t reach our friends at Kibworth, or indeed Page 45, but she says nice things about us and The Bookcase in Lowdham. She restricts herself to saying nice things – this is a bookshop tour guide, not a critique. Her view is that we are all doing a great job. And it is largely about bookshops selling new books. Maybe another volume for second hand?
Our own little national family of shop friends is well covered, including a lot on Gays the Word, Housmans, Scarthin, Sam Read, Lighthouse, News from Nowhere, Category is Books and Portal (two new LGBT bookshops). There’s a nice photo of October Bookshop’s shop front, which looks like a bank building. It *was*, with October being the first radical bookshop to buy a bank. Capitalism replaced with anti-capitalist books. Nice.
Time to mention animals. It’s well known that indie bookshop owners often have a dog on their staff. Many are pictured, with Quayside Bookshop’s Kaiser being something of a tourist attraction in Teignmouth. However, if I ever get to Devon, the dog Astor of Astor’s Bookshop in Chagford has the most soulful eyes of any dog ever. Astor gets a full page picture. Another shop has a tortoise while Much Ado Books in Alfriston has chickens in their courtyard, though on the day of the author’s visit they had come into the bookshop itself. Maybe we could use our alley… “Would you like some eggs with that?” I can see it now.
Ross Bradshaw
Author signed copies of Bookshop Tours of Britain are available here – http://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/bookshop-tours-of…/

 

Not a Novel: collected writings and reflections by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, £14.99)

“So what was I doing the night the wall fell? I spent the evening with friends, just a few blocks from the spot where world history was being made, and then: I slept, I literally slept through that moment of world history, and while I was asleep the pot wasn’t just being stirred, it was being knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning I learned: we didn’t even need pots anymore.”
This was the night the Berlin Wall fell, the Wall being the subject of several of the essays in this collection, essays about the author’s childhood living in a street right next to the Wall which, as a child she saw as being the ends of the earth. Except though the physical boundary marked the end of the known earth, the flat she lived in enabled her to see into another world. A world that had double decker buses, then unknown in East Berlin, and a glowing clock. She writes “The whole time that I’m in school, I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.” On her side, Berlin was something of a construction site, but also a world of ruins. Nobody was that fussed about the bombed wartime remains of buildings which she climbed into to explore and, later, to meet her first boyfriend.
Several decades ago, in Aberdeen, skint and on the lookout for ways of getting a holiday on the sly, I attended a few meetings of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) Friendship Society in a rather posh house in the hope that I might score a holiday. The elderly woman who ran the Society kept getting awards from the GDR and was a bit batty, but not so batty as to allow me a subsidised holiday at her beloved GDR’s expense. Reading about the place was the nearest I got over the years, which included quite a lot by John Green who used to live there. John, in short, says it wasn’t as bad as its detractors made out, but not as good as its supporters have said.
This ambivalence seems to be shared by Erpenbeck. After the fall… “Many workers lost their jobs and university professors, lecturers and researchers were laid off in the East and replaced… When the common currency was introduced, rents increased by a factor of ten overnight. West German speculators bought up East German real estate. … Suddenly everyone was talking about money.” She goes on to analyse borders, their history and who gets mourned. But the Wall was very personal, She describes an old neighbour “who always bought his rolls at the bakery across the street… until suddenly that side of the street was in the West.” She describes as a child knowing that “the warm air that drifted up to us” was coming from ventilation shafts from the Western underground that passed beneath their feet, not stopping at “subway stations that had been closed off ever since the wall had been built.” … “But what I remember most of all… was an almost small-town sense of calm… in a world that was closed off, and thus completely and utterly safe.” Even if spied on – her thin Stasi file included details of those who had visited her house and copies of love letters sent to her by a teenage admirer!
Unfortunately, when she moves away from the subject of the Wall and her early years, Not a Novel is much less interesting. Chapter after chapter comprises speeches she gave after winning awards. There’s repetition that we could have lived without and several of the speeches are related to the particular books that won the awards. Attention wandered. I’m not sure who would be the audience for some of these chapters other than the audience at the award ceremonies themselves. Still, one chapter has reminded me that I have still not read Thomas Mann, despite having had The Magic Mountain on my shelves for most of my life and another introduced me to the work of Walter Kempowski whose books I have sold but never looked at. I will now.
I can’t end this review without mentioning one tiny chapter in a small section at the end called Society. There she writes an obituary for the most wonderful man, Bashir Zakaryau, a Nigerian refugee who, after “five years of flight” finally obtained a tiny apartment in Berlin which he immediately filled with other homeless refugees who also needed shelter.
Ross Bradshaw
Not a Novel is published in November of this year.

Mazel Tov: the story of my extraordinary friendship with an Orthodox Jewish family by JS Margot, translated from Flemish by Jane Hedley-Prole (Pushkin, £12.99)

On the right hand lintel of the front doors of the houses of most Jews I know is a mezuzzah, a little tube with a particular Biblical quote in it handwritten by a professional scribe in Hebrew letters. Visiting Lithuania some years ago it was heartbreaking to see the shadows of mezuzzahs on the paintwork of old houses taken over during the Holocaust.
But it’s pretty odd really. Why is the scroll handwritten when nobody will ever read it? And why… But every religion has its idiosyncrasies which make no sense to outsiders. In the Jewish world the more Orthodox you are the more rules you follow and the more odd these appear to outsiders and even other Jews.
Into the world of Jewish Orthodoxy steps JS Margot, a 20 year old student, employed to do some home tutoring for a middle-class Belgian Orthodox Jewish family. That itself would be unusual. She had no previous connection to the Jewish world and hadn’t a clue about the life she was walking into. Surprisingly, she stayed for years and years, becoming a family friend.
Of course she gets things wrong, but this isn’t a book of humorous interludes (though there are some). She also disagrees with the family in their Zionism (not, by the way, a position at all universally held by Orthodox Jews) and finds the actions of the Israeli government and troops upsetting. She gets to understand anti-Semitism, but the most interesting part of the book is her reflections on her own life. She is a modern woman, has boyfriend trouble, true, but initially sees her modernity as better than their traditional life. Yet over the years, struggling financially and emotionally she finds herself more sympathetic to that other world especially when she is adrift in her own.
No, she does not convert, nor fall in love, and is still bemused and at times angered by what she sees. But her unlikely closeness to the family gives her an insight into a world that neither expects or wants our interest or understanding. The author is constantly discovering more. The eruv for example, “a ritual enclosure of a specific domain” – in this case, and uniquely, the domain is the the whole of Antwerp which turns that public space into a private space. Thus, on the Jewish sabbath, “certain strictly defined actions were permissible: carrying a baby, carrying shopping, pushing a pram…” because a boundary had been created, an enclosure sealed by overhead wires joining other physical boundaries. Without the eruv Orthodox Jews could not do any of these activities on their sabbath. Margot writes, bemused, “I didn’t know what to think of the eruv.” Don’t even think about the dietary rules. But she has to.
There’s a form of “orientalism” in the way the black-hatted Jewish men and their modestly-dressed wives and large families in Stamford Hill in London (or in Antwerp, the setting of this book) are seen. There’s certainly a lot of interest – Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (a novel that became a film) in which an Orthodox rabbi’s married daughter has a forbidden lesbian relationship had a big circulation a few years back. Currently the book and film covering related ground is Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman, which describes her journey in leaving the Satmar Hassidic group. Feldman provides a cover quote for Mazel Tov, thus linking the two books.
If there is a tendency to read books like these and feel a bit voyeuristic, Margot covers our back here as the book is as much about her as it is about the family she befriends.
Mazel Tov, by the way, means “congratulations”, a Yiddish phrase used by religious and secular Jews. Margot and her translator can be congratulated on an excellent and accessible read.
Ross Bradshaw