Sunday, 2 March 2014
The Novel in the Viola - Natasha Solomons
Natasha Solomons' second book is rather more sombre than her first, Mr Rosenblum's List, but still uses the problems of Jews as immigrants. It also uses a real location (although the name is slightly changed) - the now abandoned hamlet of Tyneham on the Dorset coastline, once full of laughter and tears, work and play, and a beautiful Elizabethan manor house; which was requisitioned for the war effort - a place where soldiers could train to fight the enemy during WW2. At the end of the book there is a short explanation of how the village was taken over, and what happened to this glorious little piece of history. Don't leave out the author's note when you get to the end of the novel.
Elise Landau, a Viennese Jewess, only nineteen, is told by her parents that she must apply for a domestic help's position in England. Being the baby of the family, and always having been pampered, she is shocked when the reply arrives to tell her that she has the job and is expected. She leaves behind her mother and father in Vienna; her sister and new husband having already been granted exit visas to America. She arrives in Dorset and is taken by horse and cart to the house where she is to work - from the sparkle and music of Vienna, from a life full of music, dancing and parties, to scrubbing floors, polishing tables, and eating in the kitchen with staff. It's hard. But harder still is the non-arrival of her parents to Britain, for they cannot obtain exit visas. Her employer, widowed Christopher Rivers, and his son Kit, are differing personalities, but both kind and welcoming, and it is Kit that Elise soon falls in love with. It is his father who attempts to raise enough money to pay the bribe for the exit visas.
Reading the first page or so, I was reminded of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, with it's haunting first line "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"; and although the story is very different, it does have that same quality. It has laughter and tears, a beginning, a middle and an end, and in that way, will be welcomed by many readers as a proper story. Elise herself, a very spoiled child-woman at home in Vienna, turns into something entirely different during the course of the book. I savoured it all whilst weeping inside for the fate of not only all those lost in that war, but also the fate of a tiny slice of Dorset, which I knew of, but never saw.