Review published on January 31, 2018.
This saga-style story opens in 1942 during the first wartime bombing raid on Bath, an immediate retaliatory response to the Royal Air Force bombing of Lübeck. Shortly after the raid a baby boy is born; named Yann, he is the son of Ruth and Jancek Morris. Second cousins, they had fled Lodz, in Poland, in 1929; Jancek was then just sixteen years old but he was made to promise the family that he would always look after Ruth, then aged eight. Their eventual destination was New York but before they could embark on a ship in Liverpool their plans had to change when it was discovered that Ruth had tuberculosis. When she was finally discharged from the sanatorium in 1937 they married but by this time Jancek had reluctantly abandoned his dream of going to America.
When Yann was born Jancek was about to be sent abroad with his regiment and his subsequent death left Ruth struggling as a single parent. Although fiercely independent, she did receive considerable support from friends, support which enabled five-year-old Yann to gain a scholarship to a prestigious Jewish boarding school. However, a combination of feeling rejected by his mother, the contrasts between his impoverished background and what he experienced at school contributed to a lack of confidence about who he was and where he belonged. His growing ambivalence about his Jewishness later led him to changing his name to Ian. When his mother died, whilst he was still in his teens, his determination to rise above his circumstances, to never be poor again but to become wealthy and successful, became his absolute goals in life, whatever the cost to his personal relationships.
Covering a period of more than twenty years this story follows Yann/Ian’s progress through childhood and into his early twenties. Set against the background of Bath, a large proportion of the book focuses on the post-war rebuilding and redevelopment plans for this beautiful city. The story explores the conflicts between the conservationists, who want rebuilding to retain the architectural authenticity of the city, and the developers whose only goal appears to be maximum profit for minimum outlay. This allows scope for some unethical, if not directly corrupt, dealings by some of the developers and politicians. The people in control of decision-making wield huge power. However, this power base is shifting as the original power-brokers, usually members of the elite upper class, are being replaced by ambitious, upwardly-mobile entrepreneurs. These themes certainly give the reader plenty of scope for some thought-provoking reflections on greed – and on the fact that such shenanigans remain alive and kicking in the twenty-first century! There were times when I found the over-long and detailed descriptions of property dealing, valuations, planning regulations etc. rather tedious. I found myself skipping some of these sections because, for me, they got in the way of the human interest side of the story.
There is a huge cast of characters in this novel, forty of whom are real-life citizens of Bath, friends and associates of the author. In fact, one of his expressed hopes was that they would buy the book to see who they could recognise, and even to see if they were included! At times I found this semi-autobiographical aspect to the story-telling rather a distraction because I found myself wondering which characters were “real” and which were fictional, as well as reflecting on what was fact and what was fiction in other aspects of the story-telling. This would possibly have been less of a problem for me had there not been such an excess of “technical” information to interrupt my concentration on the plot! Most of the characters were well drawn, if not always particularly likeable or agreeable, and I did maintain sufficient interest in their fates to continue reading. I’m aware that this is the first book in a planned trilogy, but I did find the “cliff-hanger” ending just too abrupt!
However, one thing I did appreciate was the fact that the title of the story is a line taken from the “Speak to us of children” chapter of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran – in fact it prompted me to dig out my old copy (acquired in 1976!) and to reread it!
Linda Hepworth 3/4
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