Talking Location with author James Ellson – NEPAL
Novel set in WW2 Amsterdam
13th January 2020
A View Across the Rooftops by Suzanne Kelman, novel set in WW2 Amsterdam.
‘Carefully standing to the side he pressed his face flat against the wall, his gaze stretched across the red tiled rooftops than ran all the way to Muttoren, the medieval clock tower that chimed every 15 minutes. Whenever he stared toward the yellow coloured numbers he would often wonder about the people who lived in the brown and cream buildings, with their stepped gabled facade that sat in tall regimented rows between him and the tower, that seemed to mock his captivity every ¼ of an hour. Were other people marking time with him, he wondered. He would pay particular attention to the other attic windows, did they too, hide secrets of their own.’
I think this book beautifully captures a question we’ve all asked ourselves – what would you do in times of war? Be part of the active resistance? Hide those persecuted in your home? Marry the enemy?
Every character in this book has a different answer to that question. At the heart of it is Josef – a maths professor who, after losing his wife many years ago, is finding it increasingly difficult to find the joy in life. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with one of his rather self-assured and reluctant students, Michael. Michael is also Jewish. After witnessing the death of his neighbour, and seeing the numbers in his classes dwindle, Josef can no longer turn a blind eye to the persecution happening in his own city. He decides to hide Michael in his attic. An incredibly difficult task, bearing in mind that Josef’s niece, Ingrid, is engaged to a Nazi officer and often arrives unexpectedly. And not only that, they have to secretly deal with life-threatening illness, bombings and lack of food.
My favourite passage from this book is the one above. (It actually took me ages to find because I listened to this book on audio and I just couldn’t work out ‘Muttoren’ until I realised it’s a clock tower in Amsterdam. One of the troubles of audio – that and the American soldier’s terrible accent). I found it very moving and poignant that regardless of the atrocities going on in the city, the clock tower still struck and marked time for Michael. Also as a reader, we know that there were others in hiding like him, so it felt sad that he was isolated whilst he pondered.
Overall, this is a really well written book, with some of the best characterisation I’ve read (or listened to) for a while. The unusual and interesting relationships are described wonderfully and I felt hooked right from the first chapter. I especially loved how the mundane things taken for granted now play such a huge role in the book, for example the Professor’s radio. It signifies the Nazi’s control, is a symbol of Josef and Michael’s resistance and also brings Josef together with Hannah – the university secretary who has her own story throughout.
Although perhaps not a 5* location rating, there are some beautiful glimpses of Amsterdam and how the city was back then. Highly recommended – just make sure you have a tissue to hand!
Charlotte for the TripFiction Team
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