I’ve pictured my May TBR here because this was one of the two books I picked up at the end of May, thinking I could finish them easily before the start of June and my 20 Books of Summer … only to find they both leaked through into June itself. Ah well, never mind: I HAVE started my 20 Books of Summer now, with the first one finished and the second on the go, and I enjoyed this unusual novel in the meantime (Having read the first two books on the TBR pictured, I chose between this and “Blue Boy” by number of pages, knowing I wouldn’t be able to finish “Isomania” in time!).

Jo McMillan – “Motherland”

(27 February 2020 – from Kaggsy at The Ramblings)

“We’ll visit a cattle-rearing station, a kindergarten, an agricultural museum, Buchenwald concentration camp.” The words ‘concentration camp’ came out loud and with too much enthusiasm. My mum ducked into her tea. (p. 34)

Well, I can’t say I’ve ever read a book set in Tamworth before; not far from where I am here and I’ve been there a few times. Jess and her mum are the only Communists in town, hawking the Morning Star on a Saturday and enduring taunts and insults and sometimes worse. They’re committed to the cause and as Jess grows up (she’s 13 at the start of the book, at university at the end) she joins a young Communist league in a neighbouring town. I love all the details of the meetings and internal politics

Ivan had changed since last night. He’s put on a ribbed navy jumper and black combat trousers, and looked military, in a Millets kind of way. (p. 216)

but, while they are amusing to an extent, there’s a scary and violent undercurrent – this isn’t a game and there are real people watching.

Jess and her mum get to experience Real Existing Socialism, as they put it, when Eleanor is invited to join a summer school in Potsdam. Soon they are going over every summer, Eleanor rising through the ranks, maybe more attracted by Peter and his daughter Martina, another half-family looking for its whole. Jess looks up to the older Martina and wishes she could be a rule-breaker, but she really isn’t. She’s aware of her mum’s relationship with Peter but everything is so difficult – the part where they think he might get to come to London for a conference is nail-biting.

As time wears on, Jess starts to become more her own person, and sometimes the mother-daughter role seems to swap. Eleanor is so committed and well-meaning, doing the things some of us probably wish we did ourselves, but also know it’s embarrassing, for example making sure to always apologise for British colonialism while waiting for takeaways. The characters around them shift and change, people are reassigned without warning and can slip away. Will Jess manage to defect as a teenager or will someone else go? The ending is ambiguous, but nicely so, the summers of Thatcherism before the fall of the Wall beautifully told, the details precise and sometimes a little uneasy (not one to read over your breakfast if you’re me).

I’m so glad Kaggsy sent me this book, very unusual and enjoyable, a portrait of a different time, one I can still remember (the fall of the Berlin Wall came while I was at university, so I’m a bit younger than Jess) and one which I don’t think has been written about so intimately.

Here’s Kaggsy’s more full and erudite review, including her personal experience of having a penpal from East Germany. And having re-read her review, I find my friend Luci’s mum was mentioned in the acknowledgements!