What I expected: a story about someone from East Germany, escaping, and then returning to a united country.
What I got: a dog’s breakfast.
The Recent East by Thomas Grattan is a multi-generational novel that pivots around Beate Haas, who defected from East Germany as a child, and then, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, returns to Germany with her two teenagers, Michael and Adela, to reclaim her parents’ abandoned mansion. The novel moves backwards and forwards in time, from Beate’s childhood to her becoming a grandmother.
Where to begin…?
Firstly, I get the sense that every idea Grattan had about Germany, was chucked into this book – the immigration problem, the prejudices and inequities between the old ‘east’ and ‘west’, the rise of Neo-Nazis, and the AIDS crisis of the eighties to name a few. And on top of that, there’s a similar mix of personal and relationship challenges – characters coming-of-age and dealing with their sexuality, the break-up of families, and mental health problems.
Then a rock flew. Another. Beate pulled Adela back just before one landed where they’d stood. Skinheads pushed past them, closing in on the camp. Shouts grew to a wall. A Roma ran out, was hit with a sailing stone. Blood covered a neo’s forehead. One of the camp’s tents waved with flames.
There’s a lot going on in that paragraph (and not all of it makes sense).
Secondly, the blurb promised a book that ‘…illuminates what it means to leave home, and what it means to return’ and this is the one thing that it did not deliver. I was hoping for a story about someone leaving as an East German and returning to see the country through Western eyes. Attempts to do this were tokenistic at best. There was opportunity to explore this theme through the character of Beate, however Grattan made the creative decision to have her completely dissociate from her children and daily life on her return to Germany (so not much illumination going on).
Thirdly, the prose. Again, the blurb promised ‘gorgeous prose’ but I would describe it more as ‘purple’. I loathe detail that doesn’t add to a sense of character, place or time, and this book was full of such details.
The last university boy had treated Tobias like a full, waiting refrigerator.
Liesl spun on the dance floor, a cloud of cleavage and lace.
He stared at Adela with the scared regret of a scolded dog.
Beate’s daughter, like a Russian novel, was both admirable and difficult to hold.
And there were some lines that were just icky –
Michael had just gotten home from his job as a busboy; his skin and clothes smelled medium rare.
Udo’s lips were the pink of uncooked chicken.
Redeeming features? I really liked the cover!
1/5 And here I was thinking I’d made it through 2022 without a one-star read…
I received my copy of The Recent East from the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Michael opens an East-German-themed bar, which made me think of one of my Melbourne faves – The Berlin Bar. The cocktail that I always choose first at Berlin Bar is the very delicious Aleksei Leonov, a whiskey, Chambord, cherry and lemon concoction.