THE ELEMENT OF WATER
 

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1 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)

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2 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.
  The Guardian

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3 Stevie 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?

The Element 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.
 
Rating   *****
New Internationalist
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4 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' pasts?

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.
 
Rating   ****
Big Issue (North)
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5 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.
  Nicolette Jones,The Independent

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6 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 it.

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.

Highly recommended
  Historical Novels Review

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7 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 weakest members.

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
 

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This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies