Well, that was a bit of a tease, wasn’t it? And it feels a bit fraudulent, because the book in question has already appeared on a few others blogs… but I kept thinking of the Guernsey book and I think folk who enjoyed that will also enjoy this… right, enough hinting. Step forward… Mr. Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons!
Sceptre very kindly gave me a copy of this at an authors/bloggers party, but unfortunately I didn’t manage to speak to Natasha Solomons whilst there, and now I wish I had because anybody who could write this novel must be worth knowing.
Mr. Rosenblum’s List – or Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English if you’re looking for copies in America – has the subtitle Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman, which should give you a clue as to the book’s contents.
Jakob and Sadie Rosenblum are German Jewish refugees, escaping Nazi rule and coming to England in 1937 for safety – armed only with While you are in England: Helpful Information and Friendly Guidance for every Refugee. Jakob is incredibly keen to assimilate, and starts off by changing his name to Jack. He tries to work out what it means to be English (yes, not British, Dark Puss!) and how to fit in – adding his own bits of advice to the handbook. For example, to the rule that refugees ought always to speak English even if haltingly, he adds ‘And do not talk in a loud voice. (Unless talking to foreigners when it is the done thing to shout.)’ Of course, assimilating isn’t easy – and Solomons very wittily manages to show the Rosenblums’ difficulties without making either them or the English appear foolish. In fact, she is incredibly affectionate in both directions. It takes an intimate and thorough knowledge of the English to show these misunderstandings and misapprehensions, and Solomons (as a Dorset girl) is well able to provide.
When the Rosenblums were waiting anxiously in Berlin for their British visas, Jack had prepared for the trip by reading Byron’s poems and a Polish translation of P.G. Wodehouse. He understood only a little Polish and read the adventures of Mr. Bertie Wooster with the help of a German-Polish dictionary. It all got rather lost in translation, and the novel appeared to him a very peculiar sort of book and had dissuaded him from sampling further the pleasures of English literature.The bulk of the novel takes place eight years after World War Two. The Rosenblums have become wealthy through a carpet factory, and have relocated to Solomons’ own county Dorset (which leads to Somerset-bashing which I’ll tolerantly overlook!) Despite Jacks’s best efforts, they have not fully assimilated. Sadie is content to remember her German roots, but Jack wants them forgotten – and wants to make his daughter Elizabeth, studying at Cambridge, proud. Having almost completed his list of English attributes, there is just one item he can’t achieve: join a golf course. None will have him, once they see his surname. His solution? Why, to build his own, of course. It will be the best in the South West, and it will be in his back garden. Ignoring the unsuitability of the terrain – and the fact that he has never so much as swung a golf club – Jack ploughs all his energy, time, and money into creating this golf course… but the path of golf never did run smooth. And this is what most of Mr. Rosenblum’s List focuses upon.
Although there is a lot of humour in the novel, like Guernsey there are moments which are moving. Perhaps not to the same extent as Guernsey, where tragedy is given its own story arc, but the following section I found poignant: At the side of the house the garden reverted to scrub; the hedgerows crept forward and brambles and bright yellow gorse bushes made it impassable. The stinging nettles were five feet tall. yet butterflies landed on them effortlessly, somehow never getting stung. Sadie neither planted nor weeded; Hitler had declared the Jews weeds and plucked them out wherever he found them. She knew that a plant was only a weed if unwanted by the gardener, so she refused to move a single one, and they sprouted up wherever the wanted.Moving, no?
The Rosenblums persevere with their golf course – or rather, Jack does, as Sadie remembers her past. There is a heart-breaking scene with some photos, which I won’t spoil. Jack encounters resistance from many quarters, but also an unexpected and unusual ally in the most Dorset man in the village…
Although I often got frustrated with Jack for wasting so much money and being inconsiderate to his wife, it’s impossible not to love him. He’s a 5’3” bundle of enthusiasm and determination, unquashable and passionate. Although I could have done without the Dorset Woolly-Pig, which seemed all a bit silly, overall I thought Solomons’ debut novel was really delightful. Perhaps a little more light-hearted than Guernsey, but an interesting angle on post-war life nonetheless – and definitely something you’ll want to be reading this summer. I’m often positive about the novels featured here, so when something really special comes along I don’t know how to say “this is even BETTER than usual!” but, er, hopefully I just did… And word has it, on Solomons’ blog, that she’s been writing a screenplay…
Books to get Stuck into:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer: well, given the build up to today’s review, this one is hardly a surprise, is it?
Watching the English – Kate Fox: although this is pop-anthropology, rather than a novel, it’s the other book I kept being reminded of while reading Solomons’ – because it has a similarly affectionate view of the Englishman’s foibles and eccentricities.