A gentle comedy of manners about one man’s efforts to fit in.
Author: Natasha Solomons Publisher: Sceptre, 324 pages
JACK Rosenblum is a German Jew, a refugee who arrived in England in 1937 as the Nazis were gathering power in his native land at the start of World War II.
Very soon after landing at a British port, he determines that he will not be like other refugees but will instead aspire to be an Englishman in all ways. So when the book opens 15 years later we find him listening to the weather forecast on the radio (for the English are well-known to be obsessed by the weather), “a beatific smile spread across his face”, as he feels a sense of connectedness to all the other Englishmen and women listening to the same forecast at the same time.
In his pursuit of Englishness, Jack keeps a list of things that will help him. The list is both loosely based on, and is something of a parody of, the official guide issued to refugees who entered England at this time. While following its precepts to the letter, Jack adds his own ideas – an Englishman studies The Times with careful attention, he must join a golf club, his wife must blue rinse her hair – until his list is in excess of 150 points long. The irony, of course, is that the more Jack tries to be truly English, the more he comes across as a German Jew trying to be English – a fact evident to the snobbish English he tries to emulate but one that utterly escapes Jack.
The difference between others’ perception of him and his perception of himself is most uncomfortably evident in a scene in which he is invited for drinks at the home of a local aristocrat, Sir William Waegbert of Piddle Hall. Jack believes that he has finally been accepted into polite English society; instead he is there simply to amuse the other guests and is the only one not invited to stay to dinner.
In this, as in a number of other occasions in the book, the English middle and upper classes do not come across too well!
Jack is a man obsessed. Having settled in London, he starts almost by accident to trade in carpets. Before long he has a large carpet factory and has made Rosenblum’s Carpets into a major manufacturer.
Gifted in business, Jack has steadily made a large amount of money but his attempts at becoming a fully fledged Englishman are being thwarted by his failure to become a member of a golf club. Each time he applies to one, his membership is rejected. His German Jewish name alone is enough to ensure that he remains on the outside of this solidly middle class bastion.
So, being an entrepreneur to the core, Jack decides that he will build his own course and to that end buys a cottage and 60 acres in Dorset, where the bulk of the novel takes place. Jack’s obsession is about to take over his life.
Mr Rosenblum’s List has a lightness of touch and a good humour about it that is very appealing. Jack himself is a very sympathetic character and we love him even as we gently laugh at him. But his transition from London businessman to golf course creator in the depths of rural England is never a very convincing one. In one sense it is not meant to be, as this is a comedy of manners, not a dose of kitchen sink realism – nonetheless, his purchase of a semi-derelict cottage and the subsequent neglect of a business that he has worked hard to build up stretch credulity.
It is when he gets involved with the local community, and particularly in his developing friendship with Curtis, local countryman to the very fibre of his being, that the book comes into its own.
For despite his foreign-ness, Mr Rose-in-Bloom, as the locals call him, discovers that he does have friends who accept him for what he is, especially when he stops trying quite so hard to be someone he isn’t. The ending, without giving anything away, has a significant feel good factor about it.
For a first novel, Mr Rosenblum’s List is a significant success and it is not hard to see why it has so far been translated into nine languages and there is talk of a film.
For all the inconsistency in character I have mentioned, Jack is an appealing and touching man through whose eyes we see a different and at times pretentious England.
The rustic characters are delightful eccentrics and Natasha Solomons’ portrayal of her native county, its history and myths gives the book a firm rooting. As Jack learns to love country life and his delightful wife gently cooks her way into the local women’s Coronation Committee, it becomes evident that Mr Rosenblum’s List is actually at heart a book about the true nature and importance of home.