Find­ing home

A gen­tle com­edy of man­ners about one man’s ef­forts to fit in.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BOOKS - Re­view by MARTIN SPICE Mr Rosen­blum’s List

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.

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