A new novel by Thomas Grattan, “The Recent East”, is surprisingly powerful, a fascinating look at a family, starting in East Germany and ending up in the newly unified Germany (the book takes the reader from the ’60s to the ’90s), but in the same small town. This multigenerational novel begins in the small town; a professor and his wife and nearly teenaged daughter manage to escape from East to West Germany, then quite a feat, escaping under an assumed identity. The crossing at the border between East and West Germany is (and will remain) the kind of traumatic memory that slightly haunts every generation of this family. Upon arriving in Cologne, the daughter, Bette, who’s the lead character, mostly the protagonist, begins a series of fascinating rebellions against her rather distant, and very tired, parents, who will again move from Germany to the United States, where they land in a small town in Minnesota. Each of these displacements is told from Bette’s point of view; she finds herself way ahead in school, because of a superior early high school experience in East Germany (Americans should take note of the often superior K-12 educations in other countries).
Bette’s experiences in American high school are not traumatic, as she enjoys being singled out for her oddities in dress, in particular; she does make friends by learning to be “The Other”, and manages to get herself into Mt. Holyoke College. Her roommate takes her home to a small town in Upstate New York for Thanksgiving, where Bette promptly begins a sexual affair with her friend’s high school aged brother, who will eventually become her first husband. Bette’s observations about life in Germany vs. life in America are astute, ongoingly rebellious, and often funny. But she’ll find life in Upstate New York with two young children abysmal; her children refer to her as “The German Lady” and her marriage goes down the tubes. So, when offered the original house in the newly united Germany from which her parents had fled in the ’60s as a kind of reparation, she decides to take off for Germany and live there with her children. The house is virtually empty of furniture; it has no heat, no electricity, no phone. Bette sinks into despair, but her young son is entrepreneurial, finds household items in other abandoned houses, comes out as gay (anticipated); he and his sister are at the time very close. Cousins from the past enter their lives, a mother and a son. Both children are enamored of the son, and he, of both of them; these passages of sexual ambiguity and young love are powerfully written in truly elegant prose. The daughter, meanwhile, languishes but finds her purpose amongst new immigrants, probably Roma, to the town.
Over time, Bette comes back to life, finds work and friends; her son opens a gay bar, and later a restaurant; the passages in the novel about his gay life are really terrifically rendered; both his mother and his sister are sympathetic and accepting, and it’s his ingenuity that brings the family back together/back to life. The novel’s triangles– mother/daughter/son, son/cousin/daughter, son/boyfriend/mother etc. are the novel’s underlying structures. The daughter flees to America, back to her father and his new wife, marries, goes to South Africa, but returns with a son to Germany; those passages where the family’s reunited for a period of time are exceptionally beautifully rendered and imply that family bonds and ties can be maintained in spite of the constant movements of people around the world, whether by choice or by drift or by necessity.
Each character in “The Recent East” is beautifully portrayed, as the definition of where home is morphs and changes geographically ; American audiences are unused to Americans choosing to live in other countries. So many immigrant novels lately include the return “home” after a dispiriting period in America, and “The Recent East” may be considered one of the finest of this genre. Deeply felt, elegiac and often lyrically rendered, this lesser known novel has a powerful effect on the reader. It’s a surprisingly moving book which I recommend wholeheartedly.