This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Category: History

G.I. Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

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As the 8.10 to Charing Cross pulled out of Woolwich, Sylvia Bradley could hardly contain her excitement. At fifteen and a half, she had only just left school, and was thrilled to be joining the crowds of glamorous women who took the train ‘Up West’ every morning to work in the capital’s grand hotels and shops.

It was fitting that I read GI Brides, the second book from the authors of the Sunday Times bestseller, The Sugar Girls, thousands of miles away from home in Perth, Australia. There, however, the similarities between the G.I. Brides and me end. For not only was I reading the book surrounded by my family, I also will be returning to my own country soon. In contrast, the G.I. Brides sacrificed not only perhaps never seeing England again, but also even seeing their own family again once they set sail (or flew, if they were lucky) for America.

For those of you who have read The Sugar Girls, the format of G.I. Brides will be reassuringly familiar. Barrett and Calvi have chosen four brides to tell their stories – Gwen, Rae, Margaret and Sylvia – and each chapter is devoted to one of the women. This interwoven approach keeps the reader interested, for no sooner have you become involved in one of the bride’s latest predicaments, their chapter ends and your focus to redirected to one of the other brides.

What I found fascinating, and shocking about G.I. Brides, was the extent to which the women emigrating for love were reviled by some Americans. Even their new families were not altogether welcoming. Although obviously, wartime, despite involving many nations uniting for a common cause, is a time in which every country involved fights to protect itself. Hence those who were jealous of the G.I. Brides were mostly women, angry that those from another country had taken their men. It is a concept difficult to appreciate from a modern viewpoint, given that we have not experienced warfare on such a scale since WWII.

There are harrowing stories in G.I. Brides, but there is much to giggle at too. Some of the funniest episodes in the book result from the differences between British English and American English. My favourite was when Gwen/Lyn kept asking the train porter to ‘knock her up’ each morning, on her great odyssey across America to California, so that she could glimpse the changing scenery. The porter told her to make sure she told her boyfriend that he ‘knocked her up’ every morning. Little did innocent Lyn know that the expression took on quite a different meaning in America!

I enjoyed G.I. Brides immensely and look forward to what the authors investigate next.

If you have enjoyed this review, you may find this Guardian interview with Nuala Calvi interesting.

Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

This is probably a book which most of you will read after watching the film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. This is no bad thing: it is a great film which is very true to the novel, and Fiennes and Winslet are as brilliant as always. But if you’ve not watched the film, then please do read the book first. Michael Berg is fifteen years old. One day, walking home from school, he is violently sick, and an older woman takes him into her apartment to clean him up. Whilst having a bath, Michael notices Hanna watching him washing; embarassed, he dresses hurriedly and flees.

But Michael cannot forget the woman who cleared up his vomit (how vomantic), so he takes her some flowers to thank her. After he returns the favour by filling up her coal scuttle, he bathes again and once again catches Hanna watching him. This time, he is not embarassed. This time, they have passionate sex and it is implied that he loses his virginity to her.

A relationship begins; a routine of bathing, sex and reading ensues. Hanna asks Michael what he’s reading at school and then asks him to read to her. Teacher and pupil roles are reversed regularly: Michael teaches Hanna about literature, Hanna teaches Michael about sex.

Time passes. Hanna is angry with Michael when he joins the tram on which she is working and acts immaturely; their relationship is a secret from his family and friends and ultimately cannot compete with the latter. One day, Michael knocks on Hanna’s door and she has gone – for good.

Schlink skips a few years and we meet Michael again at university. Like his author, he is reading law. It is the late Sixties, the Vergangenheitsbewältigung-era in Germany. He observes a war criminal trial and is stunned to discover that one of the defendants is none other than Hanna.

As the trial progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the other defendents, who were low ranking concentration camp workers, are determined to walk free and see Hanna take the entire responsibility for the murder in the church during an imfamous death march. When Michael realises that Hanna is prepared to face a life in prison rather than reveal her secret, a secret which would absolve her of a great deal of responsibility, he also finally realises what that secret is: Hanna is illiterate.

I shan’t reveal the rest of the plot: it is pretty obvious to you, I’m sure, that Hannah goes to prison. But that’s not the end of the story. What is the end? And who is the eponymous Reader?

Schlink’s novel broke my heart and angered me all in one go. History has rightly taught us to view the Holocaust purely from the Jewish perspective, and for Schlink to suggest we sympathise with a Nazi war criminal is extremely controversial. But the problem is, he is not only writing about the German problem of Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung, he is also writing a love story. For I believe that Michael never stops loving Hanna. She is punished for her crime, and he is punished for his.