Winter Games by Rachel Johnson
Upon receiving Rachel Johnson’s latest novel, a tale of toffs being ‘finished’ in pre-war Germany, I dove in straight away and devoured it. The cover refreshingly has a headed young woman with her face showing on, which makes a nice change to the usual headless or back views we’re subjected to these days. While far from perfect, it was an engrossing story, and gave a fascinating snapshot of a particular time and place in the 20th century.
It is 1935 in Oxford. Eighteen year old Daphne Linden is the daughter of an Oxford Don, and is being sent to a finishing school in Bavaria, ‘where your £ buys more of everything’, rather than the usual options.
‘One war is enough,’ Jacob Linden continued, with confidence. ‘Our chap, wet though he is, will never allow it to happen again. Not even the Hun want to live through two wars.’
Her mother is still grieving over having lost a baby son, and has not time to prepare Daphne with the facts of life.
Jacob had asked her when she was going to tell the girls and, specifically Daphne, the facts of life. Winifred had replied, ‘When they ask, dear.’
‘Have you talked to them about solitary gratification, Winifred?’
‘No I haven’t, Jacob. Do you really think it necessary?’
‘Maybe not,’ signed her husband. ‘Let’s leave it till they ask, as you say, if you think that’s right. You are their mother, after all.’
And so far, they hadn’t, until now. …
… Winifred Linden felt this conversation was going well. Contraception was available only to married women. Therefore, the only sensible thing to do was to tell the girls that intercourse was impossible until they had rings on their fingers.
The scene is set for Daphne to be an archetypal innocent abroad, and for the ‘Schloβ of Doom’, as she calls it, to provide opportunities to meet young men with inevitable consequences – especially once Daphne’s posher friend Betsy Barton-Hill joins the party.
Cut to 2006. Francie is the travel editor of an upmarket monthly mag, and she’s in Berchtesgaden, home of Hitler’s mountain retreat the Eagles Nest, to write about a spa experience – no need for any mention of Nazis according to Nathan, her boss (whom she’s lusting after, despite being sort of happily married to Gus). She plans to settle down with her book in the Stube before beginning her tour tomorrow.
Francie had gone off piste with Eat, Pray, Love, as her book-group book was too heavy to bring in her hand luggage: as usual, it was a punishing 600-page military history, as all the women in the group worried that they: 1. would have nothing to say to men at dinner parties or 2. that childbirth had wiped everything they’d ever learnt from their brains at school or University, like an iPod being restored to factory settings. So this month it was King Leopold’s Ghost about the Belgians and the Congo, which was amazing actually, but by not the best thing to read over Bratwurst.
It’s on her tour, the next day, that Francie sees a photo in a museum, that shocks her to the core and changes her life as she is compelled to research what happened when her grandmother, Daphne, met Hitler.
That gives you an idea up to around page seventy. Characters established, I’m sure you can imagine much of the rest. You won’t be surprised to find that I enjoyed the 1930s sections much more than the 2000s ones.
Daphne may have been posh, but she was infinitely more interesting than her needy grand-daughter. I sped through the Francie bits, especially when she was lusting after Nathan, to get back to Daph. Francie’s world is full of all the cultural references and trappings you’d expect from someone living the superficial life portrayed in glossy magazines.
This book is partly dedicated to, and inspired by the experiences of Johnson’s mother-in-law who was in Bavaria in the 1930s. Johnson acknowledges her other sources from the period, saying that their experiences were ‘a lot more fun, and much hairier’ in real life. I don’t know about the fun bit, given that we all know what came next, but more of the hairy stuff would have made this a much deeper novel’; cutting out Francie and concentrating on Daphers perhaps.
But that’s not really Johnson’s style. I did really enjoy reading this book but, upon reflection, I would have preferred a meatier, more serious story. (7.5/10)
I’m hoping to get that depth I was missing from Jane Thynne’s novel out in March, called Black Roses which tells the story of an Anglo-German British spy who gets into the circle of Nazi wives who run Hitler’s Reich Fashion Bureau.
For another totally different review of this book visit The Book Boy.
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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Winter Games by Rachel Johnson, pub Nov 2012 by Penguin Fig Tree, Hardback 336 pages.
Black Roses by Jane Thynne, Simon & Schuster, to be pub march 2013.