Painting: Courtesy of B. Haynie
MOTHERLAND BY JO MCMILLAN
Today’s book is of special interest to me as it is partly set in former East Germany during the late 1970s. Having spent three months at the Karl Marx Univeristy in Leipzing before reunification I was keen to see how well the author captured the GDR’s unique and complicated spirit? How well and accurately she portrayed the places and its people?
The answer to both these questions is resounding very well indeed.
Written in the first person of 13-year-old Jess, Motherland follows three years of her life as a communist believer whilst living in Tamworth. Her mother, Eleanor, is a staunch socialist (communism is in the blood) and she works ceaselessly for the cause whilst at the same time being employed as a teacher.
To start with the writing style is comic in places, wonderfully fluid and light. Of her mother, Jess says “…her communist beliefs. Card-carrying. Chronic. As if it were a medical condition”.
As a child at Grammar School Jess suffers for her beliefs; facing both scorn and physical punishment from both the pupils and members of staff. Miss Downing, the headmistress, regards Jess “with a dead father and a communist other, … as good as orphaned”. As it was Jess’s father died before she was born. “Each just the other side of life.”
Tamworth is unreceptive, and at times violent, to Eleanor’s zealous campaigning and Jess herself describes it as “…that’s what you did with Time in this town, filled it. Because you weren’t born with a life, but a giant hole”.
No wonder therefore that Eleanor and Jess are overjoyed to receive the opportunity to travel to East Germany for a summer whilst Eleanor takes on teaching classes. Finally they are being offered the chance to experience the socialist dream.
Their first visit fails to dampen their innocent and naive trust in the system. For Eleanor she views GDR not so much through rose-coloured spectacles, rather through technicoloured rainbow glasses. During their first visit and subsequent visits and events her indefatigable belief in the GDR never falters.
Her unsuspecting beliefs never waver whereas Jess becomes increasingly aware of the discrepancies of the promised words and reality. Whilst Jess changes during these pivotal years she continues to love and protect her mother – realising that her mother is as happy as she can be in the sharing community of the East German society.
The tension in the book mounts as Jess’s innocence is shattered and she gradually awakens to the murkier nature of the GDR, where friend becomes foe, where one’s every move is monitored, reported. Where paranoia is the norm.The first cracks in Jess’s beliefs are created through her friendship with an East German girl, Martina. Her mother befriends and later falls for Martina’s father, Peter. The friendship between the four will have devastating repercussions for them all.
As the book develops so does the language, mimicking Jess’s own internal development. From her comic language at such events as her childhood attempt to defect to the GDR, the language becomes more serious and sophisticated as Jess becomes unwittingly deeper involved in the intelligence world. It’s a most successful transition in writing style.
The author creates not only the sense of 1970s East Germany, with its Berlin Wall, grey cities, idyllic countryside, Bitterfeld, Buchenwald, Zwickau, endless monument visits and of course the trabbies; she also captures the spirit of the UK with its CND, National Front, Thatcher – and not forgetting the Angel Delight!
This book is not what I expected – more complex, multi-layered. Funny and sad with great characters who succeeded in getting under my skin and living with me long after I had finished the book. It’s most surprising and well-worth a read.
Publisher: John Murray Press
Release Date: 2 Jul 2015
“Sacred space is an absolute necessity for anybody today…This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”
Joseph John Campbell