Some books are said to be read like a swimming pool, you leave it there and dip in and out when you feel like it. That’s usually reserved for reference books or coffee table behemoths and other handy door stops. Most books are treated like a meal owing to the way stories are usually laid out with a starter, mains and dessert. This brings me to the first book review of 2018. It’s Bone and Blood : A Berlin Novel by Margo Gorman, published by Matador www.troubador.co.uk in September 2014.
Bone and blood follows the relationship between Aisling and her great aunt Brigette when they are thrown together in Berlin following the death of Brigette’s daughter Katherina from cancer. Aisling, a university student from Dublin, wrangles a trip to Berlin to represent her family at the funeral, thinking it would be a great chance to see the city. However, she is forced to share her great aunts house, when in stark opposite to Irish burial times there is a three-week wait on Katherina’s funeral. While sharing the house with someone almost four times her age, she starts to get to know her great aunt and delves into Brigette’s past and how an Irish woman came to spend most of her life in Germany. Through their conversations Aisling discovers Brigette was imprisoned in a concentration camp outside Berlin during the war. But what of Katherina’s father? Where did they meet ? How did Brigette get out of the camp and will Aisling get enough material for a graphic novel telling her great aunts story?
I didn’t like this book, because there was a lot of bones in this story (Think Herring / Mackerel) and gristle too, which made it rather tough to chew and get through. Harking back to my meal reference in the opening lines of the review. If this book was a meal, then the starter should set you up for the main course, but if that isn’t very good , as in this case, then the rest of the meal turns out to be a let-down and struggles to keep the diner interested. The first chapter of this book is over complicated and rather hard to decipher and gives no indication as to where the reader or the story is going.
Another point against this debutante Irish writers book, is that there are too many characters to keep track of, especially when you take into account that this was a book group selection and with most book groups you have a certain time scale with which to read a book; in our group its a month. In my case, this period was further reduced to a week, owing to my other reading commitments. This doesn’t allow one much leeway for over-complicated beginnings. The chapters after that do start to come into focus to an extent but there are still a lot of threads in this story which one must try and keep hold of. In my own case I gave up half way through.
The book had a mixed reception at the book group in December at which it was discussed, but myself and a small contingent railed against the general good reports of the other members and were quite scathing. Which sort of came back to bite us, when after an hour’s discussion, the host promptly introduced a surprise guest…. Margo Gorman herself, who was a friend of the host, had been upstairs writing and had heard none of the mixed reviews downstairs. My wife said she’d never seen me so lost for words, especially when Margo was seated next to me. I did gather my composure along with the others and in a lively and light-hearted discussion afterwards, Margo admitted that she was aware that there was a lot going on in the book and that her editor has asked her to trim the next book down and keep it to one or two main threads.
This is Irish Author Margo Gorman’s first novel (www.margogorman.com) , although having worked with international bodies for a number of years she has written numerous books and reports for them. She was educated by Seamus Heaney in Belfast and now divides her time between Donegal and Germany.
The informal questions & answer session over wine, cheese and mince pies with Margo, also covered her inspiration for the book which came about because of a work trip she made to Ravensbruk concentration camp a couple of years ago, where she discovered the stories of Irish women who were imprisoned there and in other camps during the war.
I wouldn’t dissuade you from reading this book, but it can be a bit of a challenge and as I mentioned in our discussion at the book group, there are easier works of fiction inspired by the holocaust to read. Namely Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson which I reviewed last October. But, yes if you want to support a new Irish writer, go down to your local book shop and pick up a copy, but make sure its read in good company, preferably a very nice glass of wine.