Mr Rosenblum's List, by Natasha Solomons

by Alison Stedman
American title: Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English
Published by Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton), 2010

Assimilation. It’s what Jack Rosenblum wants. More than that, he wants to be recognised as an English gentleman, despite his Germanic accent and his Jewish heritage. Ever since he left Nazi Germany for Britain in 1937, he has been developing a list of pointers for aspiring Englishmen and doing his absolute utmost to be accepted into his adopted country. In Jack’s opinion, golf is the quintessential sport of the English gentleman. However, it is 1952, and all of London’s golf courses continue to refuse him membership. The obvious choice for Jack, not one to give up easily, is to move into the country and create his own golf course, the greatest and most English in England.

Sadie, Jack’s wife, is more sceptical. She has always looked on his thirst for assimilation with bemusement, and as the war comes and goes and she knows that Mutti, Papa and Emil at home in Berlin are gone forever, she falls into a deep sadness and an enforced daily remembrance that her husband cannot understand. Lonely and trapped in her memories, she has no desire to assimilate, and grows to resent Jack, his cheerfulness and his determination to pursue his mad endeavour in the countryside.

Her fingers were turning blue at the tips, and she could feel them tingling uncomfortably but she liked the pain – she was supposed to suffer. The others had stayed and died, therefore she deserved to be unhappy. Jack did not understand this, however much she tried to show him, and so she placed burrs in his socks to give him blisters to match the unbroken cheerfulness of his day. When she bothered to cook his supper she made all the food he disliked eating: kidney pie, rabbit and marzipan tarts. It was good for him, she reasoned, he needed to be a little sad. Making Jack a tiny bit unhappy, and nurturing her own hurt, were acts of love in Sadie’s eyes.

This book is a really lovely book. There are so many wonderful things about it, one of the chief being Natasha Solomons’ careful development of her characters. Jack and Sadie are so real that the reader can almost reach out and touch them; it would be impossible not to feel empathy with them, almost from the first page of the novel. They are both admirable in very different ways, yet we can clearly see their flaws. Though we see their relationship spiralling down, this is not a horribly dark book, and we always retain hope that they will receive the happiness they deserve, though the odds are not good.

Besides Jack and Sadie, their neighbours in the Dorset countryside almost leap off the page, bringing a sense of humour and a warmth to the book that is not merely a use of stereotypical farm-or-village-folk. The kindness of the women to Sadie is tangible; the suspicion of the men followed by a growing acceptance and a desire to help Jack in his crazy plan is developed beautifully. On the other hand, Jack’s attempts to behave like the local gentry are soon seen to be hopeless, and though he will probably not succeed in becoming a gentleman, he learns gradually to become a Dorset-man, drinking in Dorset’s legends as the great mythical woolly-pig follows him throughout his journey.

Natasha Solomons paints the English countryside through the seasons in a familiar way, but with a light hand and to beautiful effect:

Sadie looked out of the kitchen window. A robin was balancing along a sugar-coated branch with a bright berry in its beak, trying not to drop its precious cargo. The wind blew and flakes fluttered from the bough of a birch tree in spirals to the ground. Icicles dangled like doll-sized mountain ranges from the eaves and in the distance the whiteness bled into the horizon and disappeared round the curve of the earth.

England’s juxtaposition with German-Jewish custom, in Sadie’s baking sessions or in the family’s celebration of the Day of Remembrance, is a lovely touch, and I especially enjoyed the moment when God sends them the sound of the ram’s horn to complete their Day of Remembrance prayers, provided by red-coated riders pursuing a fox during the Hunt.

The story goes on, and things become difficult, and Jack and Sadie must pull together and fight them, or fade away and fail. His voice sounded thin in the big afternoon and he felt a little sick as he realised how much he wanted the company of his wife. He did not need to try and be English with her. She did not care. She had known him as the little Jew in Berlin and had loved him enough to marry him. In the end, the book lets Jack fail in some things, and lets him discover success in others, and although things do not necessarily turn out in the way Jack may have wanted, this is a happy book, a hopeful book, about a resilient little man and his wife, who face more troubles ahead of them and a more intimidating past than most of us ever will. It is a thoughtful book, it is uplifting, it is not predictable or easy, and it is one of the best new books I have read.
Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2010, Alison Stedman