I seem to be reading a lot lately about immigrants, exiles and Jewish people. I’ve already posted about The Education of Hyman Kaplan. While searching in vain for How to be an Alien by George Mikes, which I thought would fit well with my other current reading, I found The Return of Hyman Kaplan, which I’d forgotten I had. So I’m reading that and also Our Street by Gilda O’Neill, an account of East End life during the Second World War. I very much enjoyed her My East End but this one is less successful IMO and I’ll write about it when it’s finished.
Now for Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons. As so often, I’m at odds with the blurb writers. ‘Hilarious’; ‘very funny’, they say. Amusing and terribly sad, I say. Jack Rosenblum leaves Germany in 1937 with his wife Sadie and baby daughter Elizabeth. Not all the family is so lucky. While Sadie constantly looks back and cannot rid herself of the sadness of loss, Jack is incurably optimistic and sets about becoming an English gentleman. This isn’t easy when you’re five foot three, with a ‘Kraut’ name and a schnoz but Jack is a very determined man. He quickly makes a lot of money manufacturing carpets and sets about spending it on becoming as English as possible. Working his way through the List, he decides that playing golf will lead to true integration but as a Jew he can’t get into any clubs, all of which are mysteriously full up when he applies for membership. What can you do? He decides to build his own golf course.
Without a word to his long-suffering wife, he sells their London house right over her head and buys a ramshackle cottage in Dorset with sixty acres of land which could hardly be less suitable for a golf course. This dogged determination to achieve a goal against all the odds is bound to remind one of Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I have to say that Torday’s book is better but that doesn’t make this one any less enjoyable. The rest of the story is set in Dorset (an added charm for me, of course) in the early 1950s and tells of Jack’s struggle to build a course in time for the Coronation. After initial suspicions, the locals make ‘Mr Rose-in-Bloom’ one of them. He works like a slave, in spite of sadness over his wife’s refusal to cheer up and the Englishness of his daughter. It’s what he wanted, a beautiful English daughter, but even he is disappointed when she changes her name.
The trials of building the course are heart-breaking at times, as is an accident to Sadie which shows Jack how much he really loves her. Any more would be a spoiler. I did enjoy the book, particularly the lyrical descriptions of rural Dorset, which the author knows well. It’s really about two vanished pasts: what poor Sadie calls before and an English country way of life which has also pretty well disappeared. If I have a criticism it is that the mixture of sad fact (Jews driven out of Germany; Helpful Information and Guidance for Every Refugee and what that meant) and the story of one man and his crazed mission doesn't quite meld. I’d still put it down as a life-enhancing book.