Motherland – a novel
By Jo McMillan
Pubs John Murray
Imagine growing up on the losing side of history, the blurb about the book proclaims. This is a personal memoir thinly disguised as a novel.
Jess, the protagonist, is a teenager living with her mum in Tamworth, a small town on the outskirts of Coventry and Birmingham during the seventies. Her mother is single, a teacher and also a committed and passionate communist as well as an avid peace campaigner, insulated and isolated from the real world. Jess follows in her mother’s footsteps, selling the Morning Star at weekends in the town square, joining the Young Communists League and accompanying her mother on several trips to the German Democratic Republic, where she helps organise further education courses for GDR teachers of English.
McMillan gives us the nitty-gritty of what growing up in that environment was like, but with a large dose of retrospective and jaundiced hindsight: was the Young Communist League really still using Stalin as a model twenty years after Khrushchev’s revelations?
Her descriptions of her mother, as a rather dotty, warm-hearted but naively utopian believer in the dawning revolution, is a sad caricature. Alexei Sayle’s similar descriptions of his communist family are at least leavened with genuine humour, but this story is a tedious traipse through a very muddy field. It is as if a teenager’s diary entries have been strung together as an over-long essay.
Of course, a positive or more sympathetic story of communists and a communist upbringing would not be touched by a mainstream publisher and McMillan here, consciously or not, feeds the seemingly insatiable desire for denigrating and belittling descriptions and a portrait of the GDR that underlines the clichés of mainstream narratives. It is not that she distorts the facts so much as that what she selectively describes are the superficialities of life which, taken as a whole, convey a desolate and melancholic reality: all the East Germans are cold, inscrutable or devious. There is no character development or the profundity of perception, one would expect in a worthwhile novel, but merely casual observation and sketchy portraits. The description of her mother’s short love affair, cut short by the inhuman intervention of the GDR authorities, reveals a rare moment of novelistic imagination, but it has nothing to do with the factual reality of the rest of the book. It will, though, feed the propaganda image of a callous and inhuman system.
The moral of this ‘novel’ is, to paraphrase Noel Coward, don’t let your daughter write your story, Mrs. Worthington!