Grey prom­ise in life of so­cial­ism

Cape Times - - BOOKS - RE­VIEW: Jen­nifer Crocker

MOTHER­LAND Jo McMil­lan, R347

John Mur­ray TAM­WORTH is the kind of town that one would re­ally rather sleep through on a train trip.

It has lit­tle to rec­om­mend it by way of beauty or charm­ing lo­cal stores. It’s more like a town that just ex­ists. The lo­cals go down to the pub, they shop at the shop­ping cen­tre and the gen­eral feel­ing that Jo McMil­lan paints of most of them is that they are rather like a flock of sheep bumbling along.

It cer­tainly is not the kind of town where you would ex­pect a rav­ing so­cial­ist to live with her 13-year-old daugh­ter Jess, but this is pre­cisely where Eleanor finds her­self.

A sin­gle mother, com­mit­ted to her cause, stand­ing once a week out­side the butch­ery shop in the lo­cal co-op try­ing to sell copies of the Morn­ing Star.

They don’t sell many, in fact they put up with a fair bit of in­sult from some of the lo­cals. But the thing about Eleanor is that she just won’t give up. Not on the ex­pec­ta­tion of the prom­ise of so­cial­ism, not on the prom­ise of hap­pi­ness.

She may not have much, but what she has makes her happy.

Jess has been slot­ted into be­ing a sort of dou­ble for Eleanor, she goes to the lo­cal gram­mar school, but her ex­tracur­ric­u­lar so­cial­ist ac­tiv­i­ties don’t make her es­pe­cially pop­u­lar with the head­mistress. But the Mitchells have been com­mu­nists for­ever.

Mother­land is sev­eral types of books in one. On the one level it is a book about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a mother with a cause and her daugh­ter. On the other it is a com­ing-ofage book about Jess grow­ing up. Then – fright­en­ing for some of us as this may seem – it’s a history book set in 1978.

East Ger­many still ex­ists as a so­cial­ist state. The Ber­lin Wall still stands. For Eleanor it’s the Promised Land, the place where ac­tual so­cial­ism works.

So when she is ap­proached by an old party friend James to go to the coun­try as an English tu­tor for the sum­mer hol­i­days Eleanor jumps at the chance.

Her en­thu­si­asm for life draws her head­first into throw­ing cau­tion to the wind and em­bark­ing with Jess on the sum­mer of a life­time.

McMil­lan’s por­trayal of the East Ger­many, which we all now know was a pretty grey and dis­mal place, man­ages to cap­ture both the grim re­al­ity of it and over­lay it as a place of won­der­ful achieve­ment as seen through the eyes of Eleanor.

Jess is drawn along through the plot and is happy to see her mother ex­pand­ing her hori­zons and be­ing re­warded for her com­mit­ment.

But there is the com­pli­ca­tion of Peter and his daugh­ter Martina who is ex­pected to ar­rive, but clearly is some­thing of a wild card in the whole “we love so­cial­ism game”.

And here again the au­thor pits two things against each other, Jess with her in­born belief in so­cial­ism and Martina who obliquely seems to be re­ject­ing it. But we don’t get to find out who re­jects what un­til the end of the novel.

The sum­mer trips to East Ger­many be­come a reg­u­lar fea­ture of Eleanor and Jess’s lives. They be­gin to de­velop re­la­tion­ships in the coun­try and the au­thor draws a poignant love story out of this story of po­lit­i­cal ex­pec­ta­tions and grow­ing up.

But, as history tells us change comes and with change come shifts in re­la­tion­ships.

In some of the most sen­si­tively writ­ten parts of this book the reader is ex­posed to what hap­pens when a sin­gle mother and her daugh­ter start to push against each other.

Yet the beauty of Mother­land is that there are not great big scream­ing dra­matic mo­ments. Rather the reader is lead through life in Tam­worth and life in East Ger­many, and Jess grow­ing up and her mother grow­ing in stature.

From the his­tor­i­cal side McMil­lan paints a pic­ture of a time of great po­lit­i­cal change by fo­cus­ing on the grey­ness of a small town, and the grey drab­ness of East Ger­man sum­mer schools.

Yes, there is drama but it is not the big po­lit­i­cal dra­mas that the au­thor uses to make her point about change and growth, but rather small ev­ery­day mo­ments that history is knit­ted to­gether.

Mother­land is a book that ev­ery­one who is in­ter­ested in the end of the Cold War, in the ef­fect it had on or­di­nary peo­ple in bor­ing towns and dreary places had.

Eleanor will find ro­mance even in be­trayal be­cause she has been raised to ac­cept that work­ing for the cause is what her life is about.

She will make her lists and her plans, and she will re­main obliv­i­ous to be­tray­als be­cause she is a good per­son, or as the right wing would have had it in those days a “use­ful idiot”. Ex­cept of course she isn’t an idiot but a per­son of prin­ci­ple who will stick to her work no mat­ter what.

For Jess, the world will be a dif­fer­ent place, but for­ever marked by her teen years.

It’s a well-struc­tured and writ­ten novel with an el­e­gance of the or­di­nary that makes it stand head and shoul­ders above most de­but works.

Jo McMil­lan

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