The German Boy
Elisabeth Mander’s life is in turmoil. It’s 1947, and her dead sister’s teenage son, Stefan Landau, is coming to live with her family. Traumatised by his experiences as a member of the Hitler Youth in war-torn Germany, Stefan brings with him only a few possessions salvaged from the wreckage of his former home.
These include a painting of a girl with flame-coloured hair, signed by the artist Michael Ross – a name Elisabeth is only too familiar with. Stefan’s presence in England evokes poignant memories in her and threatens to uncover the secret and lies on which her family life is based.
This novel is not entirely what I expected from the blurb. It is not primarily about the problems Stefan has as a result of growing up in an increasingly socialist Germany, nor is it purely the story of Elisabeth’s tenuous relationship with Michael, though both these elements play a part. At its heart, it is a story of sibling rivalry between Elisabeth and her wayward older sister, Karen – a relationship that encompasses love, jealousy, misunderstandings, resentment, self-sacrifice and betrayal.
The characterisation is complex and contradictory, which is what makes the central characters so real. For instance, there is the contrast between the letters Karen writes, apparently toeing the party line and claiming to be happily married, and the reality of the oppressive atmosphere that actually surrounds her. Add to that Elisabeth’s reactions to Karen’s letters, coloured by her own experiences, past and present, and you end up with something truly multi-faceted.
This is the sort of book that had me turning back to the beginning even before I had finished it, to see how all the elements fitted together. I also intend to seek out Wastvedt’s Orange Prize long-listed first novel, The River.