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.
At this time of year, I like to suggest books that you might enjoy snuggled up by the fire, with a mug of hot chocolate and hand-knitted socks. This is just such a book. In 1938, Elise Landau is sent by her family in Vienna to work as a housemaid at Tyneford. With her she brings her father’s latest novel, hidden inside her sister’s old viola.
This book is wonderful because it manages to tread the delicate line between fluff and tragedy. Elise is a charming narrator and I loved that she was the tubby, unmusical, apparently untalented one in her family. She develops no sudden flair of talent in the book, but remains ordinary throughout. Yet she has extraordinary strength, fury and a compelling desire to survive and simply be happy. I adored her.
As one of the Jewish bourgeois, Elise never felt her Jewishness, her family were never religious, her father was an atheist. But during their last evening together, they and their friends gather for Passover with a poignant reverence. It was one of the quietest and most moving sections of the book as they embrace that which is driving them from their homeland. In England, Elise claims her Jewishness as she has never done before, refusing to say grace and attend church.
Through our lovely narrator we are quickly introduced to her family, all of whom won me over. Then we journey across the sea and meet the collection of odd characters at Tyneford. There is Mr Wrexham, destined to be a fisherman, who actually became the uptight butler. Mr Rivers, the stoic and charming lord of the manor. Then there is Kit, the dashing son and heir. You can see where this is going and with the impending war you can probably guess how it’s going to end, but the journey will still catch your breath and break your heart.
Though some of the characters are stereotypes – the stiff butler, the hard-working housekeeper – others are so wonderfully drawn and engaging that you genuinely fall in love with them. Solomons’ describes the Vienna of Elise’s youth and the England of the war with such colour that you can almost smell the salt in the air.
An intriguing thing I discovered in the author interview at the end of the book was that the story was based on elements from Solomons’ own history – Tyneford is based on Tyneham, which really was taken over during the Second World War. Her great aunts were separated by the war just as Elise and her sister Margot are. This interweaving of fact and fiction creates a story that feels all too real. I would encourage you to buy the edition with the extras at the end if, like me, you are fascinated by what went into writing a book.
This book left me hankering for a day on the English coast and a trip to Vienna. I even half fancied a toasted marzipan sandwich.
Sceptre, 2011. ISBN-10:0340995696. 416pp.