This 2007 novel by Elizabeth Laird is the type of adventure story I loved as a boy but with one difference: she tells the story from both sides of the crusade in which the forces of France and England attempted to take back control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Adam is an English boy whose mother dies leaving him to take work in the castle under his Lordship. He starts as a dog boy but finds himself on his way to war when his Lord joins the Holy Crusade. Salim is a son of a merchant but he has a deformity that sees him apprenticed to a Jewish doctor who is heading home to Jerusalem. What the boys have in common is displacement from their families followed by involuntary involvement in a war. What they also share is a conviction that their cause is just. They are, however, on other sides of the conflict so when they meet they do not see each other as allies or friends.
The strength of this novel is the parallel narrative. We know, or can presume, that they will meet but under what circumstances? Their journeys take them to Acre. Adam finds himself serving as a squire and Salim assists his doctor. They should not meet except in battle but they do.
Elizabeth Laird uses her characters to explore this historical event from both sides. With both sides believing their mission is a holy one, the idea of right and wrong is explored through the motivations of Salim and Adam. The Jewish doctor allows the author to show the Crusade in the context of greater complexity as one faith against another. There is reference to historical figures such as King Richard and Saladin but the action is centred on the younger characters and it is the better for it.
Rose Tremain is one of my favourite authors. Her work is always thought provoking and she writes with fidelity to her characters. This novel has an air of sadness hanging over it as we trace the life of Gustav who grows up during the time of the Second World War but in neutral Switzerland where the war should not affect him. The fact that his late father was a policeman who died when Gustav was still a child shows that neutrality does not mean free from harm.
To his mother, Gustav’s father was a hero and this is how his story is told but there is a darker secret that Gustav unravels later in life; a story of moral courage in times of difficulty. His father helped Jewish refugees enter the country when the government had closed the door. This act had implications for his livelihood and possibly his liberty but it is the mother and son who suffer.
When Gustav makes friends with the Jewish boy, Anton, who has ambitions to be a concert pianist, he enters a world with a mother and father who dote on their son. That their family life is so different from his own leads to reflection on fate and fairness. The friendship endures even though their lives take different paths. While Gustav makes friends, his mother cannot build bridges with a Jewish family when Jewish people were significant in the fate of her husband.
The novel is about settling for things in life. Gustav grows into adulthood, reasonably successful in his chosen career yet with a gap. His friendship with Anton endures despite the latter’s departure for bigger cities and it is only towards the end that the gap for Gustav is filled in a way that is unexpected but completely appropriate.
There is a cast of characters around Gustav who represent the various reactions to life’s vicissitudes. ‘The Gustav Sonata’ is ultimately a sweet novel if that word can be used without it seeming to dampen the praise. Let me say that, at the end, I was so pleased the way it turned out for Gustav.
I enjoy reading about history but especially the less well known aspects of key events from the past. I thought I knew a lot about evacuees from London; my father was one, evacuated to Kent for the duration of the so- called phoney war and back in time for the Blitz! This history by Susan Soyinka is fascinating and uncovered areas I had not previously considered and revealed new facts. For example, there was highly efficient planning by the government for the evacuation of children from the larger cities but next to know co-ordination of their return. As a consequence, the authorities were unable to say with any certainty where children were.
The story told here is a specific one, though: Jewish children from the East End of London were evacuated with their school to Mousehole, beyond Penzance in Cornwall. The cultural change experienced by both locals and evacuees is related in an oral history that reveals the best of humanity as well as the resilience of people in times of war.
Many of the children from the Jews Free School were the ones who were not in the first wave of evacuation to Cambridgeshire. As bombs fell more often on London, they were sent away by their parents and Cornwall was the designated receiving area.
The memories are well handled by Susan Soyinka who is clear when inconsistencies arise or where memories conflict with the records. In part, the author shows us how she went about researching this history as she discusses her methods as well as her findings.
There are some remarkable insights into how the Jewish religious practices were kept alive in an area far from a synagogue and the story of the refugee children from Europe who, speaking no English, were also evacuated. Their suspicions of trains and train journeys were understandable.
‘East End to Land’s End’ is a fascinating book. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
As a fan of David Hare’s work, I was pleased to see this 2016 film. He wrote the screenplay based on the real events surrounding the legal action taken by Holocaust denier David Irving against historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. Lipstadt had named Irving as a holocaust denier in her book and, as a result, he sued her in the UK courts. The location is important since in British libel cases, the burden of proof is with the accuser. Lipstadt, an American academic, therefore had to fight the case in Britain or choose not to do so.
The story is a compelling one; it was by no means clear that Irving would lose since he made the case that he genuinely held the views he did and the other side had to prove that he lied.
The cast is a strong one: Rachel Weisz played Lipstadt; Andrew Scott played Anthony Julius, her solicitor; Tom Wilkinson played the defending barrister; and Timothy Spall played Irving.
We follow the case through the eyes of Deborah Lipstadt who is initially disbelieving at the steps she has to take to defend her honour as an historian. She does not always like the advice given to her by her legal team. In one poignant scene, she is horrified that her barrister, on a visit to Auschwitz, treats it like any crime scene and displays little emotion. At one point, she is invited to a dinner party where some prominent members of the British Jewish community urge her to settle out of court. Their fear that Irving might win was their motivating factor.
Having successfully portrayed Lipstadt as being on the back foot, the film shows the legal team in action as it dismantles the case of the Holocaust denier. It is a film about justice and standing up for the right things when the easier option might be to walk away.
‘Denial’, directed by Mick Jackson and written by David Hare, is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Novels by David Grossman build layer upon layer until all becomes clear. It takes time for the fog to clear and to see the essential point of one of his novels and this latest story is no exception. ‘Fog’ is not the right metaphor, though, because Grossman writes with great clarity. In this case, a comedian takes the stage to perform his act and a special guest in the audience watches and comments on what can be seen.
The comedian, Dovaleh Greenstein, is telling jokes and stringing the audience along with a story from his youth. The story is more tragic than funny and the audience has its patience stretched at times. This is where the insights of the invited guest come in. We see how other audience members react.
There are jokes here, some of them effective but the main point is to watch the stand-up comedian use the forum for a confessional about an event that proved pivotal in his life. The book must be read to gain the experience and it is for readers to assess how far this story is also the story of a nation.
David Grossman’s novels are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Jeremy Bowen is something of a BBC star as far as I am concerned. His level headed reporting from one of the world’s hottest regions is always worth listening to. He seems to get across complex ideas with clarity and he is not prone to that modern journalistic disease which rates feelings over facts and imagery over clarity.
This series of short (fifteen minute) radio programmes, broadcast by BBC Radio Four, allows him the opportunity to reflect on his twenty five years of reporting from the Middle East. I remember most of the stories the covered even if many of them were long forgotten to me. He carefully crafts a modern history of the region through returning to his news reports.
The series is not without feeling, how could it be, when as a journalist, he has seen some terrible things? Yet, while showing his humanity he never forgets that his job is to report the facts and get the stories out. There are brief glimpses behind the scene as well, though. He tells the story of his dinner party for fellow journalists on the night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.
‘Our Man in the Middle East’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I heard Jonathan Dean, the author of this excellent book, speak at the Bath Festival this year. Having heard him talk about identity and nationality I was keen to read his story of a search into family history; his grandfather and great- grandfather had both been refugees in their early lives. What makes this book stand out from others of a similar vein is the background in which he is writing. The UK referendum on EU membership has changed the way we talk about belonging and foreigners. There is a new found assertiveness among those who voted Leave for saying what they think about people who are different. This raises questions which Jonathan Dean uses in his exploration of his own family: would they be welcome now? Would Britain accept people fleeing for their lives or does the fact that modern refugees mostly have different coloured skin make a difference?
Using his grandfather’s diaries and letters and his great- grandfather’s memoir, the author shows that leaving home is never easy. Trying to make a new life in a new country is full of difficulties. What does it mean to fit in?
Throughout the book, he traces their steps, taking in significant places on both men’s journeys. Heinz, his grandfather fled Vienna for Britain before the start of the Second World War. With his brother, he left his parents behind to be sent to concentration camps. Being Jewish, the need to escape to safety was obvious but they had to go without their parents. Heinz’s story is one of becoming British. He stayed here and raised his family as British.
David, his great- grandfather, lived out his life in the Vienna from which Heinz fled. But this was not where he was from. Just as his son made Britain his home, the father found sanctuary in Austria as a refugee from a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine. It is one of the fascinating aspects of this book that he returned to live in Vienna after the concentration camp experience, living among people who had been happy to see him carted off.
The book is an important one. The rise of a new nationalism is fed by the Leave result of the referendum but casual xenophobia should not be allowed a free ride. This book reminds us of the humane reasons for refuge and the fact that for many people seeking asylum is a necessity, not a choice.
‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?