Louisa Reid – The Poet

Louisa Reid – The Poet

Emma is 25 and a promising poet and PhD student at Oxford. She is researching into a long forgotten female poet named Charlotte Mew whose work she uncovered and analyses. When she, the girl from the north and a middle-class family, came to the prestigious college, she felt like not belonging, her accent revealed her background, but her professor Tom saw something in her. He didn’t tell her that he was still married with kids and she didn’t mind. Now, years later, she finds herself in a toxic relationship. The renowned professor knew how to manipulate the young woman with low self-esteem doubting herself. Despite the success with her own poems, he can exert control over her, her thinking and cleverly gaslights her. He goes even further until she reaches a point where she has to decide to either give up herself or fight.

Louisa Reid’s novel “The Poet” is the portrait of a young woman who encountered the wrong man at the wrong time. She falls for her teacher who is charming, who sparks something in her, who makes her feel special and talented. Yet, she does not realise at which point this positive energy turns into the negative and when his second face is revealed. The power he has over her, the power his position attributes him, bring her into an inferior position from which it is hard to be believed and to escape.

The arrangement of power the author chooses is well-known: male vs. female, older vs. younger, rich background vs. middle class, academic vs. working class. All factors play out for Tom and from the start put him into the position of control. Emma, young and naive, is only too eager to succumb to it since she falls for his intellect and charm. He is idolised by students as well as his colleagues, quite naturally she is flattered by his attention.

On the other hand, we have the manipulative scholars who knows exactly what makes his female students tick. He has noticed Emma’s talent and knows how to profit from it. Systematically, he makes her feel inferior, stresses her weak points – her background, her family, the lack of money – keeps her from progressing with her work. He makes himself the Ubermensch in her view and manages to keep her close as he needs her, too. Not emotionally, but in a very different way.

Wonderfully written in verse and yet, it reads like a novel. Heart-wrenching at times, analytical at others the book immediately seduces and keeps you reading on.   

Indyana Schneider – 28 Questions

Indyana Schneider – 28 Questions

Amalia leaves her Australian home to study music in Oxford. She has only just arrived when she meets Alex, another Australia in her third year already. They befriend immediately and spend more and more time together philosophing, questioning life and sharing everything. It is an intense but perfect friendship. Yet, things become complicated when their friendship turns into love. What was easy and carefree suddenly becomes complicated, misunderstanding after misunderstanding, unexpressed and unfulfilled expectations turn the perfect friends into the worst lovers.

“(…) every so often, I come across a new piece of music and getting to know the music kind of feels like falling in love. And the idea of spending my life falling in love over and over again… who wouldn’t want that?”

The title refers to a study by psychologist Arthur Aron which postulates that a certain set of questions can lead to more intimacy and a deeper relationship between people. The protagonist of Indyana Schneider’s novel asks “28 Questions” which actually bring her closer to her first friend, then lover but they cannot help untangle the complications they have to face. It is a kind of college novel about becoming an adult, about love and about identity in an ever more complex world.

“I just don’t get how it’s possible to be such wonderful, compatible friends and so ill suited as lover.”

This is the central question. How can two people being that close, sharing the same ideas and attitudes simply be so incompatible as lovers. They are fond of each other, there are butterflies and they even match physically – but the relationship doesn’t work out. Over years, they have an on/off relationship because they can neither live with nor without each other.

Yet, the novel is not a classic heart-breaking love story. What binds Amalia and Alex is an intellectual love, they get closer over the questions which address core human topics, from social interaction over social categories of identity and the definition of themselves. They grow with each other, reflect upon their convictions and finally enter the real world of adulthood for which they are still not quite prepared.

A wonderfully written, intense novel about love which goes far beyond just being attracted by someone.

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Two sisters, September and July, just 10 months apart in age but sticking together like twins, even more, just as if they were only one person. In Oxford, where they first lived with their mother, an author of children’s books featuring two girls just like her own daughters, they were always in trouble and didn’t make friends with the other kids. By moving to the old family house, their mother hopes things will get easier. However, the spooky surroundings with walls who could tell decades of dark stories, triggers something between the girls which makes their unhealthy bond even more dangerous for the younger and weaker of the two sisters.

Daisy Johnson portrays a sisterly connection which goes far beyond what is known to link siblings. The fact that the girls are born within only a couple of months makes them grow up and experience everything together. They are like one person separated incidentally, also their character seems to have split in the two: September the wild and furious one, July, in contrast, obedient and more thoughtful. Since she is younger, she easily gives in to her sister’s will and thus follows without ever challenging her.

The atmosphere is gloomy in every line. Right from the start, you sense that some catastrophe is looming and just waiting to present itself. Even though at times, the sisterly bond also seems to be protective, the negative impact is obvious. Their mother is detached, she suffers from a depression which makes it impossible for her to see what is coming, she senses that the relationship her daughters have formed in detrimental, even harmful for July, but she is unable to do something about it.

An intense and vivid narrative with quite some eerie notes.

Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

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Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

When Dee returns from an overnight trip to London, the Oxford College Master’s Lodging is a mess: Felicity, the girl she nannies and who suffers from selective mutism has vanished. Her Danish stepmother Mariah never bonded with the girl and since she has given to her own boy, she is totally exhausted and incapable of taking care of this extraordinary 8-year-old. Felicity must have sleepwalked, something she frequently does during her nightmares which have intensified since they moved to the old spooky house. For the police, Dee is one of the prime suspects because Nick Law, Felicity’s father, is convinced of her guilt. So they interview her over several days to get an understanding of the girl’s special situation and the relationship she had with her loving nanny who could never do her any harm, could she?

Lucy Atkins’s “Magpie Lane” is a very clever and creepy novel which brilliantly conveys the atmosphere of an old, dark house where you immediately believe ghosts could wander and haunt the inhabitants. Apart from this, she has created lovely characters who are not only very peculiar but with whom you bond straightaway even though some doubt about Dee’s involvement in Felicity’s vanishing is looming over the story.

I totally adored how Atkins uses the old university town in her novel. First of all, the house itself which provides a long and spine-chilling history, but also the cemeteries and walk ways which have a lot to tell. Apart from the surrounding, the people there also seem to live in the past which is especially tricky for a modern woman like Mariah. Even though she, on the one hand, is kind of “evil stepmother”, things are not that simple. I can understand how frustrating her situation is there: she is just “the wife of”, ignored for not being a real part of the Oxford community and everything with which she normally can charm people does not work here. Additionally, the situation with Felicity is undoubtedly highly challenging for her and then, things become even more dire with her own child crying day in, day out from colic.

Even though Dee is telling the story through the police interviews, Felicity is at the centre. This girl is surely a challenge for everybody but due to Dee’s sensibility you come to love and understand her increasingly. Her nightmares and obsession with death is somehow bizarre and unnerving yet understandable when you get to know her story. My personal highlight was the character of Linklater. The eccentric historian who seems to be completely unaware of the world outside his head fits perfectly in a place like Oxford and plays an important part in creating the somehow Gothic atmosphere.

Atkins’s way of foreshadowing adds to the suspenseful atmosphere and makes it a wonderful read that I enjoyed thoroughly.

Nele Pollatschek – Dear Oxbridge

nele-pollatschek-dear-oxbridge
Nele Pollatschek – Dear Oxbridge

Der Brexit ist nach jahrelangem Tauziehen seit 31. Januar vollzogen – Zeit also, auf unsere nicht mehr ganz so geliebten Nachbarn jenseits des Kanals zu blicken. Nele Pollatschek kennt sie gut, die Engländer, wobei das eigentlich nicht ganz stimmt. Mit Studium und Promotion in Cambridge und Oxford – kurz Oxbridge – hat sie Einblick in die Welt der Eliteinstitutionen gewonnen, die die Geschehnisse im Land maßgeblich bestimmen. Kaum ein führender Politiker oder Wirtschaftsboss, der nicht die exklusive Bildung einer der beiden Universitäten genossen hat, der sich nicht diese ganz eigene Mentalität angeeignet hätte, die die Absolventen schon von weitem erkennbar von ihren Mitbürgern unterscheidet. Es ist ein Mikrokosmos, der dort entstanden ist, der jedoch nur wenig mit dem Rest des Landes gemein hat. Da er aber der Nährboden für politische Entscheidungen ist und vor allem all jene, die den Brexit letztlich verantworten, hervorgebracht hat, lohnt der Blick auf diese ganz eigene Welt.

Nele Pollatschek beginnt mit dem schicksalsvollen Tag, dem 23. Juni 2016, der fortan die Nachrichten bestimmen würde. Sie ganz persönlich war von der Entscheidung, die EU zu verlassen betroffen. Nicht so sehr, weil sie als Deutsche nun um ihren Aufenthaltstitel bangen musste, sondern weil sie über Jahre hohe Schulden durch das teure Studium angehäuft hat, die durch den Absturz des Pfunds schlagartig reduziert wurden. Es gab also individuell doch auch ganz positive Aspekte des Brexit. Auf diese Anekdote folgt jedoch der Blick auf die harte Realität: der Weg an die exklusiven Universitäten ist steinig und war auch für sie zunächst von Misserfolg gezeichnet. Endlich angekommen, lernt sie eine völlig andere akademische Welt kennen als die, in der sie in Deutschland lernte. Aber nicht nur das Studium folgte eigenen Gesetzen, auch der Wohnungsmarkt hat seine Tücken. Es folgen eine Reihe von kurzweiligen Episoden über die kleinen aber feinen Unterschiede der beiden Länder, die man nur dann erkennen kann, wenn man lange genug in die fremde Kultur eintaucht und so manches Vorurteil entpuppt sich dann doch eher als weit verbreiteter gesellschaftlicher Wesenszug.

Es sind viele Versuche unternommen worden, das fatale Wahlergebnis jenes Junitages zu erklären. Vielfach wurde der Blick auf den vermeintlich „einfachen“ Bürger gerichtet, der gar nicht verstanden habe, was er eigentlich entscheidet oder gar gleich zu faul war, überhaupt an die Urne zu treten. Insofern ist Nele Pollatscheks Ansatz ein gänzlich anderer, blickt sie doch auf das andere Ende der sozialen Klasse, jenen kleinen Teil, der sich seit Jahrhunderten abschottet und selbst reproduziert. Genau hierin liegt eines der Probleme: es fehlt vielen Absolventen der Bezug zur Realität der sozialen Mittel- und Unterschicht, sie sind jedoch diejenigen, die wesentliche Entscheidungen über deren Alltag treffen. Dies klingt nun viel geißelnder als Pollatschek dies beschreibt, ihr Buch ist keine Klageschrift, sondern eine scharfsinnige Beobachtung, aus der sie schlichtweg die richtigen Schlüsse zieht. Der Brexit ist natürlich ein ganz zentraler Punkt, aber letztlich nur eins von vielen Phänomenen, die die beiden renommierten Universitäten hervorgebracht hat.

„Dear Oxbridge. Liebesbrief an England“ trägt den passenden Untertitel. Trotz all der Marotten der Briten, die sie nerven und die sie erst mühsam erkennen und erlernen musste, liebt sie dieses Land und die kleine Welt von Oxford und Cambridge. Besonders gefallen haben mir der unterhaltsam leichte Plauderton, mit dem sie ihre Erfahrungen schildert, witzig und auch mit einem Schuss Selbstironie schildert sie Erfolg wie Niederlage. Bei all der Kritik an der Exklusivität der Bildung kann sie aber auch überzeugend darlegen, warum genau die Art, wie dort gelehrt wird, sich eben drastisch von anderen Universitäten unterscheidet und diesen letztlich überlegen ist. Sie schließt ihren Bericht mit einem Kapitel über „kindness“, einen im deutschen nur schwer wiederzugebenden Begriff. Aber es ist genau diese Milde oder liebenswerte Güte, die wir in der aktuellen Situation gegenüber unseren britischen, jetzt etwas entfernteren Nachbarn walten lassen sollten.

William Boyd – Restless [Ruhelos]

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William Boyd – Restless [Ruhelos]

Ruth Gilmartin, alleinerziehende Mutter, die ihr Lebensunterhalt als Fremdsprachenlehrerin für Privatschüler in Oxford verdient, macht sich zunehmend Sorgen um ihre Mutter. Diese verhält sich seltsam und fühlt sich offenbar verfolgt. Ruth nimmt das nicht ernst, bis ihre Mutter ihr Tagebücher zum Lesen gibt, in denen sie eine unglaubliche Geschichte niedergeschrieben hat: Sally Gilmartin ist nicht immer die brave britische Hausfrau und Mutter gewesen, als geborene Eva Delectorskaya wurde sie 1939 von den Briten als Spionin engagiert und hat gleich mehrere Anschläge überlebt. In den Wirren des Zweiten Weltkrieges gelang es ihr unterzutauchen und sich eine neue Identität zu verschaffen, diese, befürchtet sie, ist nun aufgeflogen und mit ihrem ehemaligen Liebhaber Lucas Romer ist noch eine Rechnung offen. Um diese zu begleichen, benötigt sie die Hilfe ihrer Tochter.

William Boyds neunter Roman gewann 2006 den renommierten Costa Book Award, der eher die populären Romane und weniger die hohe Literatur honoriert. Nichtsdestotrotz reiht er sich damit in eine beachtliche Anzahl bekannter Autoren wie Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Colm Tóibin, A.L. Kennedy, Ian McEwan oder Salman Rushdie ein. Mit der Spionagegeschichte erfüllt er auch wieder genau das, was ich von ihm erwartet hatte: eine spannende Geschichte mit interessanten Figuren und einer Hintergrundstory, die durchaus einiges zum Nachdenken liefert.

Sally/Evas Spionagevergangenheit wird in Rückblenden durch die Tagebücher erzählt, die die Handlung der Gegenwart unterbrechen, diese aber unweigerlich in einem gewissen Licht erscheinen lassen. Ihre Tochter Ruth hatte eine Affäre mit einem Deutschen, aus der ihr Sohn Jochen hervorgegangen ist. Unerwartet nistet sich ein anderer Deutscher bei ihr ein, vorgeblicher Onkel des Jungen, und kurz danach sucht auch noch eine zwielichtige junge Frau Unterschlupf. Im Oxford des Jahres 1976 sind die Ereignisse der RAF in Deutschland durchaus bekannt und je tiefer sich Ruth in die schmutzigen Angelegenheiten der Agenten vertieft, desto naheliegender ist es auch, dass ihre beiden ungebetenen Gäste nicht ohne Grund nach England geflüchtet sind. Das Auftauchen der Polizei und deren vage Fragen schüren nur noch ihren Verdacht.

Das Spiel mit Identitäten und Wahrheiten gelingt Boyd meisterhaft. Die Spannung – die gleich in beiden Handlungssträngen vorhanden ist – dosiert er wohlüberlegt bis zum Höhepunkt und der unausweichlichen Konfrontation. Dem großen Erzähler von Spionageromanen John Le Carré steht er meines Erachtens in nichts nach. Auch wenn der Plot durchaus gewisse Ähnlichkeiten zu anderen Romanen wie Jennie Rooneys „Red Joan“ [dt. Geheimnis eines Lebens] oder Kate Atkinsons „Transcription“ [dt. Deckname Flamingo] aufweist – wobei Boyd seinen bereits 2006 verfasste und damit vor den anderen genannten lag – kann mich das Setting immer wieder faszinieren, vor allem wissend, dass es zahlreiche dieser Geschichten real gab und gibt und viele Spione des Zweiten Weltkrieges später ein  unbehelligtes Leben mitten unter uns führten.

J.T. Ellison – Good Girls Lie

jt-ellison-good-girls-lie
J.T. Ellison – Good Girls Lie

The Goode School will be the perfect place to leave her old life behind. Ash Carlisle has just lost both her parents and is now happy to flee to Marchburg, Virginia, to concentrate on school and forget what happened in Oxford. However, her fellow schoolmates do not like secrets and eye her suspiciously, it is obvious that the newcomer has some interesting things to tell them and this exclusive all-girls school has its own rules that have to be followed. When Ash is exposed and her roommate found dead, her carefully set up facade is threatened to crumble and reveal the real person she so hard tried to hide.

J.T. Ellison has chosen the perfect setting for a mysterious story where everybody has some well-hidden secrets: the old buildings of the élite private school provide the characters with tunnels and undisclosed rooms, a history of secret societies with old passed down hazings and rules that bind the girls, rumours about suspicious deaths and a headmistress with her very own agenda. It all adds up to a thrilling atmosphere where the protagonist herself offers only shady bits and pieces of her own story so that you are well alert not to trust any of them.

I really adored J.T. Ellison’s style of writing, the author brilliantly creates suspense by only hinting at what happened back in England and by insinuating that there is much more to know about Ash. It only takes a couple of pages to dive into the atmosphere of this elite school and its very own rules that seem to have a long history and make the girls bond immediately.

Admittedly, there were some aspects I found not totally convincing, e.g. 16-year-olds acting and plotting like adults, the detective providing the girls with core information about one of the deceased, another detective investigating such a delicate case even though she has been suspended or the headmistress’s behaviour which equals much more the girls’ than would be considered adequate for her position. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read and the mystery surrounding the characters.

Claire McGowan – What You Did

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Claire McGowan – What You Did

It was meant to be a relaxed weekend and reunion of old friends, but then it turns into an absolute nightmare. It’s been 25 years that Ali and her husband Mike first met their friends Karen, Jodi, Bill and Callum at university, a reason to celebrate in their new home. Yet, after a lot of alcohol, a loud cry from Karen suddenly ends the joyful get together: Karen claims to have been assaulted by Mike, her bleeding and overall status seem confirm her accusation. After Mike’s arrest, Ali’s world slowly crumbles and falls, the more she learns about her husband, the more she has to ask herself if she really knew whom she has been married to for all those years. Not only did he have an affair all those years, but also are there money transfers to an unknown account and more pieces of information that are far beyond just being inconvenient: they are purely frightening. But this is just the beginning.

Claire McGowan’s thriller is absolutely breath taking. It is mainly narrated from Ali’s point of you and you constantly ask yourself: what would I do if I were in her shoes? Whom would I believe, my husband or my former best friend? Would I stick to my ideals or try to save the life I had worked for for years? How far would I be willing to go for the person I love? The story moves at a very high pace, just whenever you think the characters have found a way of coping with the catastrophe, the next follows immediately only to make the whole situation even worse. There is no moment to relax and sit down to think through the mess they are in, they are forced to react to ever more complications from one minute to the other.

The plot is very cleverly constructed, revealing its full potential only slowly. What makes it especially delicate is the fact that it plays on those core emotions in life: trust and believe in the people who are closest to you. It hurts a lot more to feel betrayed by the ones you love than coping with just with stressful situations. Additionally, I found it quite clever to put Ali in the position where she is presented as an advocate for women who have been assaulted and speak out against their perpetrators and then finding her in the position where she is inclined to take the other side and rather believe her husband than the woman – and friend! – who without any doubt is a victim.

I utterly rushed through the novel since I could hardly put it down. The short chapters even accelerated the plot and made you read on just one more chapter and another one and so on until the end. A brilliant story that I enjoyed throughout.

Sarah Vaughan – Anatomie eines Skandals

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Sarah Vaughan – Anatomie eines Skandals

Holly kommt dank eines Vollstipendiums aus der nordenglischen Provinz nach Oxford, wo sie Literatur studieren will. Große Erwartungen hat sie an das Studentenleben, doch bald schon muss sie erkennen, dass sie nicht in diese Welt passt. Sie bemüht sich, passt sich an, findet in Sophie und Alison auch zwei Freundinnen. Ein Ereignis am Ende des ersten Studienjahres lässt ihre Welt jedoch zusammenbrechen. Von einem Kommilitonen, der zu den berühmt-berüchtigten Libertines gehört, die sich dank des Geldes ihrer Familien alles erlauben können, wird sie vergewaltigt und ergreift schließlich die Flucht. Zwanzig Jahre später ist sie nicht mehr das naive Mädchen, sondern eine knallharte Prozessanwältin und es scheint als sei endlich der Tag der Abrechnung gekommen.

Sarah Vaughns Roman lebt von den unterschiedlichen Perspektiven auf die Ereignisse. Im Wechsel werden die Protagonisten beleuchtet: die Anklägerin, der Angeklagte und dessen Frau. Obwohl es zunächst um den Vergewaltigungsvorwurf gegen den Politiker James Whitehouse geht, wird bald schon klar, dass eigentlich die beiden Frauen mit ihren widersprüchlichen Emotionen und Überzeugungen die interessantesten Figuren sind.

Zwei Aspekte hat Vaughan für mein Empfinden sehr überzeugend in ihrer Geschichte dargestellt: zum einen die ausufernden Partys, die die Sprösslinge der Oberschicht in den Elitelehranstalten feiern und die Arroganz, mit der sie schon in jungen Jahren den Menschen gegenübertreten, wo sie selbst noch nichts im Leben geleistet oder erreicht haben. Ihnen gehört die Welt, sie kaufen sie sich und drehen die Wahrheit wie es ihnen passt. Als Studenten und später im Berufsleben. Die dort geknüpften Bande sind hart wie Stahl und durch nichts zu erschüttern. So sichern sie sich gegenseitig ab und garantieren auch, dass niemand den Schutzwall, der sie scheinbar umgibt, durchdringt.

Der zweite Punkt liegt in der Figur von Ehefrau Sophie, die zwar nicht die cleverste Studentin zu sein scheint, aber durchaus über ausreichend Weitblick verfügt, zu durchschauen, was James mit ihr macht. Sie spielt mit, weil das die Rolle ist, zu der sie erzogen wurde und kann lange Zeit nicht über ihren Schatten springen, obwohl die Zweifel an ihr nagen. Ein wenig mehr Mut hätte es gebraucht, etwas mehr Rückgrat und die Dinge hätten anders verlaufen können. Ihre passive Schicksalsergebenheit macht sie schuldig.

Kein Gerichtsthriller, kein Drama, sondern eine Menschenstudie, die sehr gut gelungen ist und trotz des Hoffnungsschimmers am Ende ein wenig Frust zurücklässt, weil nämlich die Wahrheit nicht immer den Weg ans Licht findet und nicht jede Tat angemessen bestraft wird.

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

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Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

Gretel does not grow up like other kids do. Her mother is different, they live on a boat, stop here and there and they even invent their own language. After the mother’s sudden disappearance, Gretel is left on her own devices and has to find a place in the world. The early fascination for words quite naturally makes her a lexicographer, a very lonesome job in which she updates dictionary entries. Even though she hadn’t been in contact with her mother for more than sixteen years, she hasn’t forgotten her and always feared that she might be the person behind a newspaper article about a fatal accident. When they are re-united, also the long lost memories of their former time together come back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel is nominated on the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist, itself already an honour, but even more so for an author at the age of only 28. It only takes a few pages into the novel to see why it easily could persuade the judges: it is wonderfully written, poetic and shows a masterly use of language:

 

“I’d always felt that our lives could have gone in multiple directions, that the choices you made forced them into turning out the way they did. But maybe there were no choices; maybe there were no other outcomes.”

Gretel’s has never been easily and having found her mother, seriously marked by her illness, doesn’t make it easier since she will never get answers but has to live with how her life turned out.

What I found most striking was how Daisy Johnson easily transgresses boundaries in her novel: being female or male – does it actually matter? If you call a person Marcus or Margot, it’s just the same, you immediately recognize the person behind the label. Sarah and Gretel live on the water and on land, they blend in nature and don’t see a line between man and animal or plants, it’s just all there. The language itself also doesn’t know any limits; if need be, create new words to express what you want to say. And there is this creature, a fantastic being that can also exist either in Sarah’s mind or in this novel where so much is possible.

Just like Gretel and her brother Hansel who were left in the woods but managed to find a way out, Gretel follows the crumbs to her mother, retraces the journey they did when she was young and with the help of the people she meets, tries to make sense of her own and especially her mother’s life.

The structure is demanding since it springs backwards and forwards which I found difficult to follow at times. But the language’s smoothness and virtuosity compensate for this exceedingly.