‘An intelligent insight into Germany’s situation during and between the two world wars’ – Shadows over Time by C.J. Christensen
Shadows over Time follows the new trend for quality paperbacks which I see increasingly and have come to love. The firm, well-designed covers with inside flaps, nice paper and clear, easy-on-the-eye print make them valued additions to my shelves after the books have been read.
Told as a series of paintings by the youngest of four generations of women this is the story of how they become estranged from one another through the burden of their pasts. Ellie and her brother Justin hope the first major international exhibition of her work will be an opportunity to bring the three surviving women together and facilitate a reconciliation. Sharing each of their experiences and traumas in turn the reader travels with them between Berlin, Dresden and London.
Gustav and Katerina von Steindorf live in an elegant town house in a wealthy suburb of Berlin. Gustav’s aristocratic background has helped him gain respect as a lawyer and politician in the German administration just before and during the first part of WWI. Katerina is unfulfilled and demanding, often testing Gustav’s patience with her idiosyncratic whims. Childless for a long time Katerina finally finds more purpose to life when she gives birth to a baby daughter, Renata. When, in 1934, the Gestapo arrive to arrest Gustav for activities in his professional life deemed inappropriate by the Nazi regime Katerina is forced to find the courage to deal with the situation in order to protect herself and her daughter from harm. Through a friend of her husband she meets the French Ambassador who, as a neutral party, is able to negotiate Gustav’s release and offer her and Renata sanctuary in his embassy before helping them to obtain passage to England as it’s no longer safe for Gustav to remain in Germany.
Life does not give Renata an easy ride. She has a complicated relationship with her mother and as an adult has to deal with the loss of both her beloved husband, Sebastian, and the favourite of her two children, Joachim. Although Renata never directly blames her fifteen-year-old daughter Sabina for Joachim’s death when they become caught up in a bombing raid on Dresden in 1945, it nevertheless badly affects the way she feels towards her. Still grieving Sebastian’s death in the concentration camp of Buchenwald she eventually returns to London. After a short time with her grandparents Sabina is sent off to boarding school where she is bullied and feels out of place.
Of the four women Sabina is least able to cope with her traumatic experiences of growing up in the war. She relives them each night in her dreams and only by drinking herself into oblivion every day is she temporarily able to appease her demons and find sleep. It’s into this unstable environment that Ellie and her younger brother, Justin, are born. When their father leaves their mother’s fits of temper, during which she beats her children, increases. On her seventeenth birthday, after a particularly vicious row with Sabina, Ellie leaves home for the last time staying with various friends until she finds a rent-free flat that’s awaiting demolition. Returning from a spell of travelling around the world her brother turns up on her doorstep one day and for a couple of years they share the sparse living quarters.
Ellie is now working at London’s Drury Lane Theatre and with the help of some of her friends there learns to paint. At the theatre, too, she meets Milo, an actor, and together they go on to have two daughters. When Ellie’s artistic career starts to take off Justin becomes her agent. At this point the story comes full circle and the reader learns of the mixed fortunes which present themselves at the art exhibition in Berlin. The well-worn phrase ‘a leopard can never change its true colours’ comes to mind here. The exhibition’s opening night is deemed a success, but the reunion brings only Ellie and her grandmother closer together. It becomes painfully clear to them all that her mother is unable to change, forgive or forget and is well on the course to self-destruction.
Unless I’m much mistaken mine is a published edition of the book and not a proof copy. I was, therefore, disappointed to find the editing rather poor. In addition, many of the German words used to create an added sense of authenticity and location are incorrect. This, in my opinion, somewhat diminishes their point.
Any Cop?: An intense read without many lighter moments. The history and politics covered in the novel are well-researched and accurate, as far as I can tell, providing an intelligent insight into Germany’s situation during and between the two world wars and how it affected the daily lives of her citizens.
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- April 27, 2011 / 7:13 am