So, after an absence of four months, I returned to my sister’s book club in Germany for the first time in a year. As i suspected, being out of a book club after my return from Australia has been tough – I miss my group very much and have looked on at their forthcoming book choices with envy. I was pleased to be invited back to the Cologne group, it is a smaller group with a more intimate feel, mostly because the members are regular and they have no one-off participants. It is also held at a member’s house rather than in the pub which feels more homely, and there’s plenty of home cooked food to eat as well which is always a bonus!
The book choice for the month, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, was one that I struggled with in its opening stages. The main narrator of the story, Trudi Montag, is a dwarf growing up in a fictional rural German town. The first few chapters highlight her issues with her disability and the abuse she suffers as a child in one particular horrifying event that I won’t spoil here. It also starts to describe the people of the town of Burgdorf, some in little potted portraits, others sketched in more depth. These characters weave their way in and out of the story as it progresses.
The first 150 pages or so I found a bit of a drag, not really engaging fully with the narrative. But once the spectre of World War II approaches, the pace starts to quicken and the character building that has gone before starts to fall into place. The fascination of this tale for me was twofold. One, how each character reacts as the Nazis begin to take a stranglehold on society. Some turn the other cheek, others actively resist and are removed from the town without warning, Trudi and her father secretly help others to build a tunnel to hide those in danger. Second, was how the regime didn’t insert itself with fanfare and a great explosion, it was much more insidious than that. Rights were encroached upon slowly, quietly, and curtailed in small increments. To start with, some agreed with these restrictions, through coercion or fear or belief. Then, as things got worse, they realised how much had been lost, but far too late. The regret this caused led to some characters making awful decisions that destroyed lives and families.
Hegi explores these two themes with great skill – the town almost feels like a character in itself, how it changed from a bucolic village to one of fear and oppression. The heightened state of events gives the narrative pace and the middle third of the book contains its most powerful passages. How each character makes their stand is fascinating, and their decisions are always explained with empathy, if not approval.
The last section of the book dragged a little, and I think overall the book could probably lose 50-100 pages and improve for it – the love story involving Trudi and Max could have been cut down and its conclusion was rather obvious – but on the whole I enjoyed the book, and most of all, thought it was an excellent discussion piece for native Germans, who are only a generation or two removed from these events. It was fascinating to hear how modern Germans approach the Nazi regime, how comfortable they are to discuss it, how it happened. I felt from the discussion that the struggle to reconcile their feelings on the monstrousness of Nazism is still going on, along with a still lingering sense of guilt and shame over what happened. For this book to bring these issues into public discourse is to its great credit.