The cover image of Deutschland by Martin Wagner may misleadingly make you think of a Cujo-like horror novel, but although a scary dog on a chain does appear about a third of the way in, Deutschland is a work of literary fiction with the theme of moral/ethical choices. What determines whether one is a good person? Do thoughts count or only actions? Can good people do bad things? What if someone does a bad thing to prevent someone else from doing something worse? Are ethics something that arise naturally, or a human construct like the chain on a starving attack dog?
The novel is short– about 150 pages – set in England, over the summer holidays. Grandchildren Samantha, Tony, and Jeff are staying with the grandparents in their large, seaside home, near a wood the three children aren’t supposed to explore as much as they do. The story focuses on one main character from each of the generations – Robert, the American expatriate step-grandfather; Kate – his wife Suzannah’s adult daughter; and Sam, Kate’s niece, around 10 or 12 years old. Sam is anxious to keep her youngest brother Jeff safe from Tony’s dangerous dares and challenges. Kate – the unsettled wanderer – is about to embark on a trip to Munich with a new boyfriend, and is dreading telling her mother she’s going to Germany. And Robert, as Suzannah’s second husband, still feeling somewhat the interloper in the family, has a miserable secret from his own past that he may be forced to reveal.
Author Martin Wagner is a film-maker and playwright; Deutschland is his first published novel. Deutschland would make a good movie; each segment of the story could easily become a scene. Readers are given some insight into what Robert, Kate, and Samantha are thinking, but for the most part, as readers, we are listening to their conversations and watching the characters interact in the present, getting only an occasional backstory.
Deutschland is thought-provoking reading that leaves many questions unanswered or ambiguously answered. It reminded me a bit of The Red House by Mark Haddon (with its tangle of English family members misunderstanding each other) but Deutschland is much more straightforwardly written (no stream of consciousness).
Pinter & Martin, 2013
DIsclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the author for review. Thank you to Charlie of The Worm Hole for recommending it to me!