I am not entirely sure whether it is the state of print media in general or whether it is just such a relief to MAKE THINGS UP, but recently there have been a flood of first novels by men and women who are, by profession, journalists.
Today I shall concentrate on two women both of whom have recently published first novels, both novels being of the highest quality. The two books are Clay by Melissa Harrison and The Undertaking by Audrey Magee.
This beautiful, simple and heart wrenching tale takes place around a city park. Hardly a park even, more a rather special piece of forgotten Victoriana. There are benches and specimen trees, official tarmac paths and unofficial paths which take people where they really want to go, across the grass by the shortest route to the shops or the “chippie”.
Living around the park on one side, is Sophia, a grandmother to Daisy whose parents live the other side of the park in a smarter area. Also using the park is Josef, a Polish emigré who still misses his farm, but recognises that he failed to get up to speed with EU regulations and consequently lost it, and knows that this was partly his fault.
He has a dog with him most of the time although it is not his dog, it really belongs to his employer at one of his part-time jobs – heaving furniture for sale from buildings where tenants have been evicted or have died. Denny gets to move the stuff for the Council and Josef gets to cart it around.
And finally there is TC. A small boy of about nine, living with his mother in a grimy flat in a housing estate on a third side of the park. At present, his mother appears to have a boyfriend living there, Jamal, who at least cooks for them all. TC’s mother hardly bothers with him and he frequently has to raid her purse for school dinner money – or go without.
School doesn’t really appeal to TC, he is a misfit since he almost never has the right clothes, and isn’t interested in the right things. But the things he does know would probably amaze his teachers if any of them bothered to find out.
Just before he left, TC’s father gave him a book on tracking in the wild. All the different footprints, the ways to tell what an owl has been eating, the names of birds and wild animals and other exciting and mysterious knowledge. Luckily TC rescued if from the bin where his mother had chucked it, unopened, when she kicked out her abusive husband.
The paths that these people follow intersect from time to time and they become friends…
Written in a lyrical prose, with a delightfully varied and expressive vocabulary, this book is a must read for anyone who likes to sit on a park bench and watch the world going by – all the time wondering where they all belong. The seasonal changes, minutely observed, and the wild animals that share the park with their perambulating neighbours are the stuff of a little boy’s dreams.
Audrey Magee‘s book is a very different thing altogether. Set mostly in Russia and Germany in the Second World War, we follow the lives of two people who marry by proxy. Peter Faber is a private in the German army and in order to get some home leave is marrying a woman whom he has never met, but has selected from her photograph. Her name is Katharina. They meet first as husband and wife when he returns for “honeymoon leave”.
Dirty, stinking and lice ridden, Peter is drawn into her family and meets her father’s influential patron, Dr Weinhart. One of Peter’s first tasks after having met this man is to go out into Berlin, bash down a few doors and evict the Jews…then his extended leave having ended he goes back to the freezing Russian steppe.
Meanwhile, his wife and her egregious family get a capacious new apartment for their trouble.
This is a completely unsentimental, unemotional look at the situation that these two people find themselves in. The chapters swing between the conditions on the Eastern Front – Peter and his companion soldiers endlessly marching through snow, cold and danger and showing brutality everywhere and Katharina and her family, kept in decent comfort in Berlin thanks to their influential friend in the Gestapo, so that in spite of privations elsewhere they have plenty of good food, coal and elegant furs.
Anyone with even the remotest sense of history probably knows quite a lot already about the collision between the mechanised German army and the Russian hordes – all the way to Stalingrad; and equally probably knows the fate that awaited the German hausfrau once the Russian army fought its way back across first its own territory and then into German and finally Berlin. There is nothing new in this book, but by personalising it, this novel brings home with appalling clarity the grinding awfulness for each individual caught up as they are in a cataclysm over which they have no control.
Fall out of favour and you are thrown on the dung heap…