A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Jack Rosenblum is five foot three and a half inches of sheer tenacity. Through study and application he intends to become a Very English Gentleman. Jack is compiling a list: a comprehensive guide to the manners, customs and habits of England. He knows that marmalade must be bought from Fortnum & Mason, he’s memorised every British monarch back to 913AD and the highlight of his day is the BBC weather forecast. And he never speaks German, apart from the occasional curse. From the moment he disembarked at Harwich in 1937 he understood that assimilation was the key. Now the war’s been over for eight years and despite his best efforts, his bid to blend in remains fraught with unexpected hurdles. Including his wife. Sadie finds his obsession baffling. She doesn’t want to forget who they are or where they came from. She’d rather bake cakes to remember the people they left behind than worry about how to play bridge. But Jack is convinced they can find a place to call home. In a final attempt to complete his list, he leads a reluctant Sadie deep into the English countryside. Here in a land of woolly-pigs, bluebells and jitterbug cider, they embark on an impossible task …
I admit there’s an interesting story here, and I did quite enjoy following the adventures of our main character, Jack, as he attempts to build a golf course in the middle of Dorset. But I do think, being a keen golfer, I should have enjoyed it more than I did. The problem is that Jack himself isn’t that gripping and his story is something of a one-trick pony as during most of it all he’s concerned about and all he thinks about is the golf. Oh, and occasionally the carpet factory he’s left behind. And, at the beginning of the novel, that pesky list (of which more later). All of which I imagine is supposed to be funny, but it didn’t really make me laugh out loud. Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood?
I actually preferred the character of Sadie, Jack’s wife. The all too brief sections where she remembers her past fleeing from Nazi Germany and the family she left behind are incredibly moving and were, for me, the best parts of the book by a long chalk. Here the writing becomes incredibly lyrical and I would have liked more of that. Even though it made me cry:
There, on the other side, stood her mother. She was wearing her long black skirt, a white apron and a neat blue scarf over her hair, while she fed scraps of burnt cake to the quacking ducks. Sadie stepped straight into the stagnant water. It was shallow and lapped the edge of her dressing gown, turning the bright fuchsia into dirty brown. The robe fanned out behind her like a train, her curlers forming a crown upon her head. Closing her eyes, Sadie took a breath, drawing the sweet scent inside her. She mustn’t open them. She must not. Must not. If she did, Mutti would be gone and there would never be poppy-seed cake again.
I particularly enjoyed Sadie’s relationship with food and how she uses it to celebrate memory. This is especially so later in the book where Sadie’s foreign cooking brings the womenfolk of the village firmly down on her side, in spite of the fact that she’s not English and – worse! – not from Dorset. In addition, towards the end food is used to improve and cement the relationship between Sadie and her very anglicised daughter, Elizabeth.
One big plus point here was that I learnt a great deal about the history of the Second World War period when it came to refugees from this book, but it wasn’t via the dreaded info-dump but nicely conveyed via the characters’ thoughts and actions. So those sections of the novel worked well too. Indeed I didn’t think there were enough of these as I would have loved seeing much more of Jack and Sadie’s life before they fled to England. Although, admittedly, as Solomons is writing a comedy of manners, that certainly wouldn’t have suited her focus, so I can understand why such scenes have been abandoned. It was particularly interesting, and deeply surprising, to see how prejudiced the average 1950s Englishman or woman was against the Jews however – that was an eye-opener for me and I can only apologise for my ignorance. Believe me, it’s vast. Indeed, the fact that Jack is unable to gain acceptance into any golf club in the greater London area because he’s a Jew is the only reason why the couple move to Dorset in the first place and why Jack starts building his own course.
Which brings me to that list. It notes the ways and means of learning to be English, as compiled by Jack. I have to admit it started off being casually charming, as here:
The only time he faltered, and his pencil drooped was when Mr Winston Churchill or Mr John Betjeman came over the airwaves.
But this motif very quickly got rather wearisome and, in some ways, works against the character development of Jack, constraining him as it does to a list of racial and social desires. I think Jack, given the chance, is more than that. As Sadie certainly is. It was almost a relief when Jack abandons it later on for the golf course alone, though again I think our MC’s interests should be more wide ranging than they’re allowed to be.
With almost the entire focus on Jack and the lesser focus on Sadie, there’s not much room for anyone else, and the novel does suffer with some rather clichéd village characters. Having been born and brought up in a country village setting (though not Dorset), it didn’t really ring true, though to be fair I don’t think Solomons is aiming for realism. This writer is more in the Wodehouse than the Kingsley Amis world, but a little less cliché would have been nice.
Offset against this is Solomons’ obvious appreciation of the natural world and how her characters respond to it:
In London there were only four seasons and she [Sadie] had handbags for each. Here, summer was a thousand shades; the elderflower bushes found in every hedgerow and copse smelled sweetly in the middle of June and now, a month later, they were all brown and withered. Yet, the honeysuckle and the jasmine were in full bloom and their scent lingered in the summer air.
She conveys both lyricism and a kind of sparse clarity in her descriptions of the Dorset seasons and in a way that certainly lifted my mood. Good for her.
My final conclusion then is this: Mr Rosenblum’s List is light and fluffy like a good soufflé but there’s not much of substance to it. However, I gather a film version might possibly be in the offing at some stage and, with the right actors and director, it should pass an hour or so pleasantly enough.
Happy Read quota: 5 out of 10. I couldn’t really get excited – or indeed particularly happy – about this one, but it’s okay.
Mr Rosenblum’s List, Sceptre Press, 2010, ISBN: 978 0 340 99564 8
[Anne always enjoys the veneer of control any list can bring. To prove her point, she has her very own comic List Novel.]