They were of the future, not the past, she and Wolfi; young and modern. They could shake off the burdens that made the older generation crooked, stumbling forward whilst peering back over their shoulders, sly-eyed, hagridden, concealing their shames and stigmas. Each carried his secret like a suitcase, kidding himself that it was invisible to others. Superciliously, they dared you to demand, Open up that case. Let’s see what you’ve got in there. Renate. Karl. Mr Quantz even. Patterson. The Frauleins with their smut about Jews. Admirals. Issie and Wolfi, Wolfi and she, would live in a new world, free of all that. (p142)
When I signed up for this blog I was hugely excited to discover that Stevie Davies had made the Orange longlist in 2002 with The Element of Water. Not only is Stevie Davies one of my favourite contemporary authors, but The Element of Water was one of the few novels of hers I’d yet to read.
The events of the novel circle around Lake Plon, Germany, in 1945 and 1958. Once home to the retreating Third Reich, the area has now been turned into a school for British Army children. Our fresh-faced protagonist Isolde (Issie) arrives to take on a teaching job, eager to start a new life, but instead discovers a past that is difficult to shed. Objects are being retrieved from the bottom of the lake, everything from medals to a violin; and Issie discovers a disturbing connection between this Nazi memorabilia and her absent father.
The atrocities of World War II are juxtaposed with the institutionalised cruelty displayed at the school thirteen years later. We are shown an ingrained hostility, employed as much by the German and British staff as the students themselves. Issie attempts to stand up to what is going on but finds herself unable to bring upon change before tragedy occurs.
Davies bravely and deftly tackles the major themes of identity, guilt, forgiveness and complicity. Whew, sounds rather heavy doesn’t it? Yet the outlook is not entirely bleak. Those partial to a little romance can lose themselves in the lyrical portrayal of the developing love between Issie and Wolfi. Those of us concerned with the bigger picture should thank Stevie Davies for snatching the wool from our eyes, making us better equipped to quell similar brutality in our own times.