THE ELEMENT OF WATER
||My recommendation would be The Element
of Water by Stevie Davies, which seemed to slip under the radar
and didn't get the attention it should have. It's a wonderful
book set around the end of the Second World War and it deals
deftly with issues of memory, guilt, love and responsibility.
|| AL Kennedy, The
Observer (Favourite read of 2002)
|| Don't be put off by the dense and difficult
first chapter of The Element of Water : this is a hugely
rewarding read, the sort of book you want to press upon everyone
you know. It is set in Lake Plön, site of the "Northern
Command", the Third Reich's last-ditch attempt at clinging to
its splintered country. In 1945, Michael Quantz watches the
regime crumble; in 1958 he returns to the lake and sees Isolde,
the child of a brutal SS officer, fall in love with his own
son. It's impossible to convey here the complexities and beauties
of the story, which gently pries apart knots of prejudice and
pain that endured long after the war ended many of which
are with us still.
Davies is no stranger to combining compelling story telling
with moral complexity, so it comes as no surprise that her latest
novel is set in Germany immediately after the Second World War.
Set on Lake Plön, a final retreat of the crumbling Third
Reich, The Element of Water daringly explores issues
of knowledge, guilt, complicity in horror.
The story splits into two time zones. First, the final days
of the war after Hitler's death. Then, 13 years later, when
the Lake Plön naval barracks have been turned into a British
Forces boarding school where German ex-naval intelligence officer,
Michael Quantz (also at Plön in its earlier incarnation)
and his son Wolfi now teach music.
Onto the scene arrives, fresh from Wales, a new teacher, Isolde
a young naturalized British woman who does not know her
long-lost father was a high-ranking SS thug. Without in any
way excusing the evils of Nazism, this book has a somewhat unusual
way into the issues. Isolde is shocked at the level of sadism
and degradation at the English boarding school. But her protests
are too weak to prevent tragedy. While her fellow English teachers
ooze moral superiority over 'Gerry', Isolde sees nationalism
and anti-semitism flourishing both inside and outside the school
walls. It makes one wonder: what form of Anglo-Saxonism might
have emerged from a Nazi victory?
of Water has a lyrical, brooding quality and an atmosphere
as airless as totalitarianism itself. But there are moments
of transcending tenderness too, especially in the love that
develops between Isolde and Wolfi. And Davies' depiction of
the fraught, painfully moving relationship between father and
son has a tremendous psychological acuity. This is a soulful,
nuanced book; full of shades of grey, with no easy answers,
punctuated by the odd, welcome flash of wry humour.
|| As Britain teeters on
the brink of deciding whether to embrace a European future or
pull on the tin hat and huddle in the bunker of the past, along
comes this timely study of race, identity, prejudice and forgiveness.
Germany, 1945, and the march of the jackboot is receding across
Europe. Nazi intelligence officer Michael Quantz tosses his
Iron Cross into Lake Plön before establishing a new identity
with son Wolfi under the Allied regime at an overseas British
school. But memories of the war are rekindled 13 years later
when our heroine Issie, free-spirited daughter of an old SS
officer, turns up on the shores of the lake and falls in love
with Wolfi. As those dark waters relinquish their trove of Nazi
memorabilia discarded by the retreating army, what other secrets
will come to light when the young lovers delve into their parents'
Davies' mix of pulp melodrama and philosophical treatise probes
the gulf between filial loyalty and moral integrity, tapping
the paranoid fear that inside the kindly father/fatherland we
have always known something wicked lurks.
Drawing disturbing comparisons between the mutual stiff-upper-lip
and nationalistic imperialism of both Tommy and Kraut (institutionalised
in those concentration camps of flogging and cruelty, the English
public school), Davies suggests no amount of salsa lessons can
heat our Anglo-Saxon frostiness into Latin sensuality.
More seriously, if we are all capable of infinite good and infinite
evil, how do we guard against our darker impulses? The millions
of Nazi faithful carrying out inhuman orders were not born monsters
but common men ready to act without asking questions.
With looming recession and asylum-seeker hysteria creating ideal
conditions for far-right opportunism, Davies' plea for vigilance
is all too relevant.
||Big Issue (North)
|| The building on Lake Plön,
in the north of Germany, in which this novel is set has served
two different functions. In 1945 it was the headquarters of
the retreating regime of the Third Reich. Hitler's successor,
Admiral Dönitz, received the letter from the Bunker here
in which the Führer passed on his tainted mantle. In 1958,
the same building had become a boarding school for offspring
of the British army. The novel moves back and forth between
these two dates, interweaving layers of history in one location.
Stevie Davies's story is built on fact. The Nazi HQ did become
a forces school which she briefly attended. From this
starting point, she has constructed a fiction that explores
cruelty, complicity and guilt. To the school comes a young teacher,
Isolde, who was brought up in Wales without knowing who her
father was but guessing unspoken crimes. Fortunately, her imagination
never matches the actual misdeeds of her father, a young Aryan-blond
SS officer, Paul, who blithely shot Jews into ditches and strode
over their bodies with a smile.
What Isolde finds in the school is not the truth about her father,
but first love with Wolfi (son of another German ex-officer),
persistent anti-Semitism among the locals, and a cruelty that
echoes the actions of the previous occupants. She makes inadequate
gestures of protest about bullying, but not enough to protect
a victimised child.
The book becomes a study of kinds of responsibility for evil:
both active participation and standing by. It considers the
combination of sentiment and brutality that characterises torturers.
They may fuss over their pets or children as they order exterminations:
"They murdered as they doted". It reminds us that a mere 15
years is not enough to extinguish entrenched attitudes that
condoned genocide. And it asks whether the new generation should
expatiate the sins of the fathers.
Davies's fusion of past and present is masterly. The two engrossing
plots unfold, with echoes and parallels illuminating each other.
The description of the social life of the Nazis is compelling,
as political fanaticism encroaches on their homes. And the boarding
school, steeped in colonial arrogance and prejudice, evokes
the oppressive chill of institutionalised unkindness.
As always, Stevie Davies writes with prose of unaffected clarity,
and a calm like the still surface of Lake Plön, where the
Germans scuppered subs and sometimes drowned themselves. As
she dredges up the history, it is a revelation.
|| The genre is difficult
to classify. It is both a love story and a tale about coping
with memory and morality. In 1945, German soldiers and sailors
dump their uniforms and sometimes themselves into Lake Plön.
Some wait for the right moment, ready to surrender to the advancing
British whilst avoiding the suspicious gangs of SS.
Michael Quantz is a survivor who has not been able to dump his
feelings of guilt with his naval uniform. Thirteen years later
the naval base is a residential British school. Quantz is now
a music teacher at the school. He is unnerved when a new young
teacher, 'Miss Dahl' arrives from Wales. The story develops
with two themes. One centres on her naive enquiries into the
harsh treatment of children by both the German and British staff
and much to her amazement by the other children as well. As
she is the only British member of staff who is a fluent German
speaker she challenges some of the German staff about their
treatment of particular children. Some of their long suppressed
answers lead her to suspect that both they and she may have
dark connections to the war.
The other theme centres on Quantz and how he deals with his
guilt which has surfaced with her arrival. He had impotently
witnessed atrocities a nightmare made worse by seeing
them carried out with relish by a former close friend.
For me the period setting feels right both for 1945 (Quantz
has flashbacks throughout the story) and for 1958. I felt involved
with the plot. I wanted to find out what would happen to both
Quantz and the young woman. They remain superficially connected
throughout the story and yet share a common humanity, the one
oppressed by terrible experience and the other about to discover
Stevie Davies makes the wartime Nazis frightening in 1958 by
the simple expedient of giving them common lives. Truly as Miss
Dahl quotes, 'we are them and they are us'. I found it to be
a very disturbing book.
|| In her intriguing new
novel, Stevie Davies confronts the twin evils of fascism and
anti-semitism. The setting is Lake Plön in northern Germany,
where the Ruhleben training school for naval officers operated
during World War II. As the book opens in the spring of 1945
with the British army closing in on Hamburg, Admiral Dönitz
holds fast to his belief that the remnants of the German army
are indispensable to the Allies. "We think alike," he insists,
"they will need us to fight the bolshevik menace." Appointed
by Hitler as his successor, Dönitz's short reign as führer
ends when British troops take over. But, in 1958, Dönitz,
who was sentenced to a mere 10 years imprisonment, has become
a symbol of emerging neo-fascism. The naval training camp is
now a boarding school for children of British army personnel.
Its headmaster gloats over his collection of nazi memorabilia
the helmets, medals and weapons thrown into the lake
in 1945 by deserting German soldiers. The English staff at the
school engage in a cruel and degrading form of discipline and
the children, in their turn, indulge in the persecution of their
Rachel, the pupil who suffers the most torment from her peers,
is assumed by the German matron to be Jewish and the anti-semitism
of the German house staff is revealed. But, more sinisterly,
on a neighbouring estate, an apparent orphanage where
blond children predominate acts as a front for a gathering
of former nazis. Around these themes, Davies weaves an intricate
web of relationships concerning two generations of German families.
Isolde and Wolfi, two young teachers at the school, are drawn
together. Their friendship and growing love for one another
leads them to question their past. Isolde, who was brought up
in Wales by her German mother and Welsh stepfather, has been
denied the truth about her real father.
It is Wolfi's father Michael, a former German naval officer,
who realises Isolde's connection to his old childhood friend
Paul. Past memories haunt Michael daily. As he recalls the war
years, he remembers his encounters with his one-time friend,
who was then a fanatical officer in Himmler's SS. Ghastly scenes
of dead and dying Jewish people fill him with guilt. And the
obscene incongruity of Paul's immaculately booted foot kicking
a frail, elderly Jew into the pit has him running and retching.
Yet, at the time, he had made no protest. Paul's manic obsession
with his appearance and his arrogant pride in his fair skin
and white-blond hair had become an insane fetish. His wife had
dyed the hair of their baby daughter and Paul had rejected them
both when he discovered the child's dark hair growing at the
roots. The novel reaches its climax when Paul, his blond good
looks now blotched and blemished, arrives at Lake Plön
for the nazi reunion. But the book's most telling message is
revealed when, the same night, a tragedy occurs and Isolde,
the hopeful figure of the young generation, finds that, she
too, has failed to speak out.
|| Morning Star
|This entire presentation Copyright