Six students at an art school in 1920s Weimar play a little game where they hide something in their hand. They leave three-word clues, and the others try to guess what they are hiding. Of course, there are many other things to hide as well, and the story collects the clues to uncover what everyone is hiding.
Being in this time and place, we know there will be some Nazi connections, religious, sexual and political leanings that require secrecy. Mostly this is the story of young people and their relationships with each other, shifting as they mature and discover themselves and changing due to external factors that affect Germany as well as the rest of Europe. Trying times in both senses.
The story is told mainly from 1960s London as one of the six looks back on his life. A couple of the friends have died by this time and the cause of death is revealed slowly. In a similar fashion, there is a fight in the shower rooms with potential legal consequences and the truth of what happens comes out, again, slowly. The art school is the famous Bauhaus, which originated in Weimar but had to relocate, and the layout of the buildings, the artistic challenges and events bring this school to life. The backdrop to the events between the two wars slides in details of the economy and upcoming depression, general public attitudes and rising dissatisfaction.
This period of European history continues to fascinate and it is refreshing to read about it from such an unusual angle. Creative people always make good characters even if they are quite unlikable, as in this book. I was looking forward to reading about the the avant garde artists from the Bauhaus, some of the character being actual people from history, although their parts are very fleeting, some just being mentioned.
It is written well, with some beautiful phrases, ('My meanness that April shocked my September self') although the telling of the story dominates the showing and the time jumps are mildly confusing at times, as the age of the characters is not clear. Most of the book 'passed in church like slowness' as the weather and fickleness of the friendships were the central features, while the wait is on for the secrets to reveal themselves.
The last part of the novel corresponds with the Nazis coming into power and the tensions rises, as it would for those living in Germany at that time. Some do not see the threat, some escape it. Here the narrator, looking back, faces his guilt: 'I already know my obsessions well.' The secret he is hiding, as with all of the characters, is that they are selfish, despite what they all tell themselves. This is not a love story.
Wood is a talented writer and her research is sound. However, this story is about young friends and the place in history seems like a passing feature. Disappointing if that is what draws you to this book. An original read nonetheless.
Published by Pan MacMillan 11 July 2019.
Advanced review copy supplied by the publisher.