The 'German Boy' of Patricia Wastvedt's novel is Stefan Landau, a teenager who arrives in England in 1947. His parents have both died in the war and Stefan is to live with his aunt, Elizabeth Manders. His possessions are few, among them an antique rifle and a painting by an English artist, Michael Ross, which depicts a copper haired young woman.
Within the first fifty or so pages of the novel the action moves swiftly between 1947 back to the 1880s and forward again to the mid 1920s. Although he is crucial to the plot, Stefan does not come back into the story until much later. 'The German Boy' actually centres on three young women, childhood friends who lead very different lives as adults. Karen marries a German and moves to Munich; her sister, Elisabeth, trains as nurse and embarks on an ill fated affair with a doctor; and Rachel marries a widowed railway porter who leaves London to fulfil a dream of being a farmer. The plot is woven around the connections of the women with Michael Ross, a handsome artist who chooses a less than conventional path as a young man and one that, ultimately, leads to tragedy for everyone. The crux of the tale is a fleeting moment between Michael and Elisabeth which neither can forget.
Wastvedt has chosen for her historical background already well trodden ground and this leaves little room for surprises; it shouldn't take any reader long to realise that Karen's husband to be is a rising star of the Nazi party, nor to anticipate the fallout of the Wall Street Crash for certain characters. Fortunately the story is character driven and Wastvedt does not always have her cast do what one might expect of them, although one could argue that too many events are the result of 'chance' meetings which cause the story to appear contrived from time to time. Wastvedt's weaving of this complicated web of relationships is disappointing because when she writes simply of people and places her style is most enjoyable. She captures the decadence of interwar Germany; the peaceful landscapes of coastal Kent; the bohemian parties of 20s London. Her depiction of Mazamet, Michael's village retreat in the Languedoc, is magical and made me think of the idyll setting for Joanne Harris's 'Chocolat'.
Wastvedt's characters shine too, though the women come through with more colour than the men, even Michael who never seems more than sketchily drawn. Feisty and ambitious, Karen's aim in life is to find a husband with the means to provide her with a comfortable life; she is depicted as self-centred but her fate is excessively harsh if it is intended to be punishment for her misdemeanours. Elisabeth's character is less defined though her actions are less predictable making her, perhaps, a more interesting member of the cast. Most colourful of all is Frankie, a wealthy socialite who acts as a kind of agent for Michael; I loved the picture of Bohemian Bloomsbury where Michael goes to paint portraits of self-centred vain women who seem oblivious to the troubles of ordinary people. In this novel Wastvedt shows that she has a flair for describing any landscape, be it rural France, suburban London or the hauntingly desolate coastal marshes of Kent. The author has an eye for period detail; little details like clothing or meals don't encumber the story, they enhance it quite beautifully.
Although she manages to keep the story very tidy in spite of covering a relatively long time period I found there to be a few repetitions of similar events; when she makes a point Wastvedt frequently repeats it which is frustrating when you just want to know what happens next. Dare I suggest better editing could have trimmed off those overhanging branches that weigh the story down?
A classic family saga 'The German Boy' covers the typical themes of love, deceit and family secrets but there are also more dramatic threads such as racism and the brutalisation of children through war. It's pretty heavy stuff - a battered wife, a couple desperate for a child, a World War One veteran who is so disfigured he spends the rest of his life upstairs in the spare bedroom - but the underpinning story kept me interested. I couldn't believe that Stefan was just going to come to England and live happily ever after; there had to be a reason for his coming, otherwise why have him come at all? This and the question over whether Michael and Elisabeth can ever find love with each other kept me reading what is frequently a slow moving and rather challenging novel.
'The German Boy' is a frustrating piece of writing; on the one hand it has great descriptive writing and it has colourful, believable characters, on the other it uses one miserable theme after another and trudges along without focus. To quote Father Ted's long suffering housekeeper Mrs Doyle 'Some people enjoy the misery': if you do then you should probably buy a copy of 'The German Boy', otherwise don't bother.