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Book set in England and Germany – Interpreters

28th March 2014

Interpreters by Sue Eckstein set in England and Germany.

Interpreters is the second (and, sadly, the last) book set in England and Germany by Sue Eckstein who died in 2013. It is very different in style from the first, The Cloths of Heaven set in the Gambia. Much less of the Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene feel – and an altogether darker read that explores the non conventional (‘abusive’) upbringing of children in families across three generations. It is ‘autobiographical fiction’ that borrows extensively from Sue’s family and childhood.

0956559964.01.ZTZZZZZZThe central character is Julia Rosenthal (loosely based on Sue herself…). Julia is the daughter of a Dutch / German woman who moves to the UK at the end of WW2. She has a daughter, Susanna, who has revolted against her upbringing in the Gambia and gone – with Julia’s sort of permission – to live with Julia’s ‘alternative’ brother, Max, in Dorset. The freedom she experiences there is in contrast to her somewhat strict home upbringing. Julia, on a visit to the UK, is drawn to visit her childhood home in the Home Counties suburbs. Here she is invited into the house by the new owners and re-enters her own childhood – we experience how odd and strange her mother and father’s behaviour towards her was… behaviour that seemed to her very normal at the time. Her own childhood experiences are contrasted with those of the current occupying family. A particularly interesting vignette concerns Julia’s highly obsessive compulsion to keep her childhood bedroom in a totally ordered manner – a complete contrast to the chaotic lifestyle of the present incumbent. We learn of Julia’s mother’s being sent to psychiatric institutions and of her father’s affair with one of his medical colleagues.

Alternate chapters of the book feature time-shift interviews between Julia’s mother and her therapist. Julia’s mother was born in Amsterdam – the daughter of a Dutch woman and a German business man. She and her mother (Julia’s grandmother) moved to Germany in the pre-war years to be with her father. Her father had no time at all for Julia’s mother, and made that very obvious. She had a thoroughly unpleasant childhood – mitigated only by her success in the female version of the Hitler Youth movement. At the end of the war she fled ahead of the rapidly advancing Russian army and eventually, after a quite horrifying and frightening journey, ended up in England. Little wonder that she experienced some of the psychiatric problems that she did.

Interpreters is a very good book and I enjoyed it (although I was expecting another The Cloths of Heaven which I had really found excellent…). It shows the impact of parenting, and the way in which a child’s experience of parenting drives behaviour across generations. We have little choice in whom we turn out to be. The experience of the alternate chapters works well (a device I seem to have encountered several times of late…) and the descriptions of suburbia are quite excellent – from the privet hedges hiding who knows what to the twitching of the curtains. In TripFiction terms the book certainly scores on this account!

Tony for the TripFiction Team

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