If you like historical novels with a fast-moving story told in chronological order, this is not the book for you. At first sight Jakob’s Colours seems to be written backwards, starting in 1944 and reaching back to the 1920s. The reader goes on to discover that it is a jig-saw, each piece with its own chapter with the pieces strewn in apparently random order. To help solve the puzzle each chapter is headed with a place and date: the places are England, Switzerland and Austria, and the dates are classified into three time phases, ‘This Day’ (1944), ‘Before’ (1943) and ‘Long Before’ (any time in the 1920s and ‘30s). Gradually the reader finds pieces that fit together until the picture emerges. It seems strange but it is not unlike a ‘whodunnit’, starting with a crime in the present and sorting back into a fragmented past to explain it.
The crime is the Holocaust. Not the Jewish Holocaust but the Romany (Gypsy) Holocaust. Whereas the Jewish Holocaust was unleashed upon a population currently highly integrated with the wider society, the Romany Holocaust was a more ruthless phase in a continuing persecution. Even peaceful, democratic Switzerland seized gypsy children from their parents to re-educate them in harsh institutions. Jakob’s Colours tells (or should we say assembles) the story of a mixed-blood gypsy family and its struggle to survive over 20 terrible years. This is a book you will remember long after you have finished it.