This wasn’t the book I expected but oh my, it was so much better! I expected a tale, similar to other ones I’ve read this year where the protagonist has changed her identity because she is either hiding from someone or something, and to an extent that is exactly what this story is about, but it tells a tale much deeper than that, truly exploring how we identify ourselves and illustrates how events in the past have very real consequences in the present.
Klaudia is the only daughter of Otto and Gwyn Meyer and we first meet her in the 1980s as she starts secondary school where her father is the caretaker. Having been home-schooled by her religious mother surrounded by the religious figures her father carves out of wood, Klaudia struggles to socialise, something not helped by the fact her father is a figure of fun and called a Nazi by her classmates. Saskia Sarginson paints a realistic picture of a teenage angst without it ever feeling melodramatic and so when Klaudia finds some evidence that seems to suggest that the name calling isn’t just childish taunts, but may have roots in reality, her reaction was entirely believable.
Klaudia leaves home in the 1990s, she moves to Leeds and becomes Eliza Bennett, named on the spur of the moment in honour of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett. She leaves behind the taunts that had followed her through her teenage years and reinvents herself, but she can’t quite forget the suspicions she has about her father’s past and is in no hurry to return to the claustrophobic home in London.
Interspersed with Klaudia’s and Eliza’s stories we have the story of Ernst, Otto’s brother. Ernst’s tale begins in the 1930s in Germany. Ernst and Otto were foundlings, taken in by the Meyer family living a bleak life, one where they aren’t treated as family but more as servants despite being young boys. We follow Ernst as life in Germany is changing with fascism on the rise and proving your ancestral line is a requirement of staying safe.
Earlier this month I made a comment that a book spoke to me, this one did too and I understood why when I got to the afterword. The author tells us she was informed that the father that she’d never met was a Dutch Jew and how that made the Holocaust all that more personal. My paternal family were also Jews who came to England from Amsterdam and like the author, I’ve always been aware that but for the decision of my ancestors to move to the East End, I may not be here at all. I’ve been to Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam and read through the names of those who died in the concentration camps and seen my family name, which only became anglicised in the late 1930s, listed numerous times as were the other surnames that crop up in my family tree. The author wrote this book after considering how she would feel about this period of history if her father had been a German Nazi rather than a Dutch Jew. Coincidently the same thoughts were running through my head as I read this book, and that is the randomness of reading, you just don’t know when that special book that feels personal will appear.
This book really moved me and although I had some sympathy with Klaudia/Eliza, the character I really grew to love was Ernst. If you want to find out why, well you’ll have to read the book!
This is the first book I’ve read by this author but having rooted around in the cupboard which houses a pile of unread books, I found a copy of her debut novel The Twins which was one of the Richard and Judy choices back in 2013 and this will be now promoted to a place on an actual shelf.
I’d like to say an enormous thank you to Little Brown Book Group who allowed me to read a copy of this book in return for my review. The Other Me is already available to read as an e-book with the physical copy being published on 13 August 2015.