Saul Adler is more shocked than bewildered when his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, not only flatly turns down his marriage proposal, but tells him that they are finished and that he can grab his stuff and leave. Here we get a glimpse of the prose that will follow,
“because my marriage proposal had sunk to the bottom of the sea. I was shipwrecked amongst the empty oyster shells with their jagged sharp edges and I could taste Jennifer Moreau on my fingers and lips.”
Earlier in the day Saul had been hit by a car while crossing Abby Road, the crossing made famous by the Beatle’s Album cover which was their last record produced at EMI studios close by. The old man who was driving the car, Wolfgang, stops to make sure he is ok. A strange conversation ensues. The man seems very interested in Saul and asks some personal questions that seem inappropriate in the circumstances. He also has a rectangular object which seems to be spitting out obscenities. At the time Saul has no idea of the ramifications and just how much change this little accident will set in motion.
Saul is an historian, and in three days he will travel to East Germany to write about its history and struggles with fascism. It is 1988 and the Berlin Wall still splits the country in two, separating the communists from the capitalists. Saul is given access to the archives, but in return he must write a favourable essay, focussing on education, and health care, etc.
We find very quickly, that Saul was bullied badly growing up, verbally from his father, and physically from his brother.
Things start to go a little surreal when Saul returns home and decides to order some flowers to be delivered to Jennifer. He is looking for sunflowers, on his third attempt a man who Saul believes to have given his name as Mike, says he cannot understand the language he is talking in when asked what to write on the card. Saul realises that he has been talking in German. When he eventually finishes and thanks “Mike”, the man says his name is not Mike. The man tells Saul to “take care”, just like the old man Wolfgang from the accident in the morning.
As the narrative continues, more and more strange little details start to pop up. Things that are slightly different to his perception of them. A photo that Jennifer took of him crossing Abby Road shows him barefoot, but he is sure he was wearing shoes. An old lady, who lives in his building and has crippling arthritis, using a zimmer frame to walk, tells him she is going to a Polish shop to buy a poppy cake, but he cannot recall a Polish shop being where she says it is. Lost in thought for a few moments thinking about this, he is then startled to see the old lady walking rapidly to the bus stop with no sign of any arthritis, or the walking frame.
This continues, with every little detail, every occurrence that Saul encounters being strangely, even if only slightly nuanced, from his initial perception. At this point, the reader must start to wonder if Saul has been injured in the crossing accident. Maybe a form of concussion?
When he is in East Germany objects initiate memories that he seemingly knows nothing about. The sight of a little red train,
“I had seen that train before, or dreamed it, or even buried it, and here it was, returning like a spectre to torment me.”
He also describes the unification of Germany and the fall of communism in Russia, the end of the Cold War, to his translator, Walter, exactly how it happens in the future. Later he does the same with Walter’s sister, Luna, again foretelling a future with complete confidence and certainty that he is correct.
The second part of the book jumps to 2016 and I feel that if I told anymore of the narrative at this point, it would rob the novel of its greatest strength. It is extremely cleverly written and as the reader progresses through this second part of the novel, light will be shed and understanding slowly is realised. Levy’s job of taking the reader inside Saul’s head and experiencing what he is experiencing is simply superb. The narrative is slowly pieced together from a “fractured”, a word used extensively throughout this novel, damaged mind. The reader, along with Saul, must sort through these fragmented and sometimes contradictory memories, to discover who he really is and what has happened.
I may be a little biased because I love these types of novels. A novel that you will return to and, just like Saul, pick up connections and points that you may have missed upon the first read.
Wonderful! 5 Stars!
Deborah Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts leaving in 1981 to write a number of plays, highly acclaimed for their "intellectual rigour, poetic fantasy and visual imagination", including PAX, HERESIES for the Royal Shakespeare Company, CLAM, CALL BLUE JANE, SHINY NYLON, HONEY BABY MIDDLE ENGLAND, PUSHING THE PRINCE INTO DENMARK and MACBETH-FALSE MEMORIES, some of which are published in LEVY: PLAYS 1 (Methuen)
Deborah wrote and published her first novel BEAUTIFUL MUTANTS (Vintage), when she was 27 years old. The experience of not having to give her words to a director, actors and designer to interpret, was so exhilarating, she wrote a few more. These include, SWALLOWING GEOGRAPHY, THE UNLOVED (Vintage) and BILLY and GIRL (Bloomsbury). She has always written across a number of art forms (see Bookworks and Collaborations with visual artists) and was Fellow in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1989-1991.
There is a link to the Waterstones interview here - https://www.waterstones.com/blog/the-waterstones-interview-deborah-levy