I turned back to the map and traced the Wall with a finger. It was a purple line and it ran all the way round West Berlin. It was actually written WESTBERLIN. One word, said quickly, over and done with. It looked like Anglo-Saxon Tamworth, fenced off behind a rampart … There were lots of crossings around WESTBERLIN, shown with a triangle as if they were youth hostels. WESTBERLIN was mostly white, which meant it was a very high mountain. Or one big industrial estate.
Just occasionally, Jo McMillan’s quirky imagery slows the pace (e.g. p129):
‘What are we going to do?’
‘The washing-up.’ She put on gloves, heavy-duty ones, an odd pair, one turned inside-out, and stirred up a meringue.
Nevertheless, the descriptions are lovely, especially for those with a geeky passion for words (p 208):
Frau Dr Blech stood at the front of the lecture theatre and effused about the honour of her new post. She said how demanding, exacting and nagging it would be. Synonyms rolled off her tongue. After a while, I noticed they were in alphabetical order. She’d memorised her thesaurus. She asked for communication, dissemination, intelligence and intercourse. No-one had felt able to tell her about her word choice. Which was the downside of being an official. Unofficially, people thought things they didn’t like to say.
Like Mrs Engels, Motherland is a sideways look at communism through the eyes of an endearing female narrator. It resonated for me, however, with the experience of growing up within a religious ideology: the initial unquestioning ordinariness giving way to a flash of fanaticism before an eventual rejection as the girl discovers a mind of her own. Congratulations to Jo McMillan on such a fine debut novel and thank you to John Murray Publishers for my review copy.