Sarah Day reviews Mary Chamberlain’s new novel, The Forgotten, a “compelling mystery” set in Berlin in 1945 and London in the late 1950s.
Most of us encounter the history of the Second World War at some point in the school curriculum. I remember learning about the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the Holocaust, the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the eventual Nazi surrender – and there the history lessons ended, as though the end of the war had made everything right again.
What I don’t remember is any discussion of what came next; in particular for Germans left to pick up the pieces of a country decimated by war and economic collapse. Cities targeted by bombing lay in ruins. In Berlin, overrun by the Soviet army, around a third of houses were rendered uninhabitable. The harrowing aftermath of the war for ordinary people wasn’t mentioned much when we celebrated VE Day anniversaries with cake and bunting.
Mary Chamberlain’s novels specialise in telling these forgotten stories and looking at well told histories from a new angle. Her latest, The Forgotten, juxtaposes Berlin in 1945 with 1950s London; a contrast made starker by the harrowing details of life in the ruins of the German capital.
In London, Betty meets John at a meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and they strike up a sweet, tender relationship, going for teas and visiting the British Museum.
It’s clear early on, though, that something darker is going on; someone is following John, and Betty is hiding things about her past. As their relationship deepens, we learn more about their lives before they met, and about the tragic mystery which has haunted them both.
The story, complex and ranging, is expertly paced and the shifts between time periods and perspectives never jar. I found the most vivid passages those set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of war; the descriptions of the ways in which people, especially children, struggled to go about their everyday lives in the face of so much destruction and peril will stay with me for a very long time.
In one especially moving scene, two girls explore the attic of their crumbling flat and reverently unwrap relics of their old lives. They lift out a gramophone and play a foxtrot. ‘How can you dance?’ the younger asks her sister. ‘How can you be happy?’
The passages set in 1958 make for a fascinating contrast; it’s hard to believe the two strands are just thirteen years and a few hundred miles apart. I wish there had been space for more detail about the early days of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in these passages; with so much else to explore, there just isn’t a lot of time. There is a vivid scene involving a homeosaurus, which I would love to think is based in reality.
This is a compelling mystery, full of twists and puzzles. But it’s the poignant human stories which will stay with me the longest. A child queuing at a water tap in a ruined city; a woman walking through an underground bar, trying to sell her family heirlooms to soldiers.
Chamberlain has a wonderful ability to explore larger stories through these smaller ones, bringing the past to life in startling colour.
Her feature on the Partisan Coffee House, a left-wing cafe and meeting place which features in The Forgotten, will be published soon in Historia.
Read Mary’s Memories of Virago.
Duncan Barrett has reviewed her previous book, The Hidden.
Sarah Day’s novel Mussolini’s Island is set during the Second World War and explores sexuality and secrets, desire and desperation on an Italian prison island.
She lives in London, where she edits Geoscientist, the magazine of the Geological Society. She previously worked for the society as a science communicator and has written columns for a variety of publications, including the Guardian and The Vagenda.
Mussolini’s Island is her first novel.
Berlin women cleaning up on Jägerstrasse by Peter Cürlis, 1946: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia