Friday, May 9, 2014

The Corner Garden by Lesley Krueger

Judging by some of the novels I am reading for this blog, post-WWII Toronto was basically full of secret Nazis. I know I'm being rather flippant, but this is definitely the fourth - possibly the fifth - book involving a character who lives in Toronto now but did some messed up shit back in the war. It is getting hard to judge them just as books, as I inevitably hold them up as part of a particular genre as well.

This one does alright. It is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl named Jessie who moves, with her mother and new stepfather, to Toronto from Kingston. There she encounters a neighbour, Martha (actually Maaike), an old Dutch lady who at first coldly rebuffs her, but slowly a bond begins to develop between them and Martha/Maaike begins to educate Jessie/Gretel (the name she has taken on) in a certain worldview - not an explicitly Nazi one, but there's a lot of Nietzsche and Goethe involved.

It is a book about pretense. Slowly we find out about Martha/Maaike's Dutch past through a series of diary entries from when she, herself, was Jessie's age during the occupation, and letters to her deceased father in the present day. What is more compelling (at least to me) than the slow reveal of what Maaike did during the war is how thoroughly she convinces herself that she is Martha, not Maaike, and the ridiculous and abusive hold her father has on her. The Martha/Maaike half of the story is a lesson in the dangers of blind nationalism - Maaike's actions have nothing to do with a hatred of the Jews or anything, she is just a 15-year-old girl who believes in her country and has never questioned that faith. When her history changes when they move to Canada - perhaps even before that, when her mother kills herself - and the nationalism shifts itself to a blind allegiance to her father.

Both of these things - the devotion to her country and to her father, right or wrong - save Maaike's life through the course of the story, but also rob her of a good life and the ability to be a whole person. She spends the entire time in Canada - 50+ years - living as Martha and basically never becoming close to anyone so as not to destroy the lie.

Obviously I found Martha/Maaike a much more compelling character than Jessie, although the novel is divided between them. Jessie is as naive as Maaike was at her own age, failing to see, as other characters do, what Martha really is until it is much too late. She also refuses to believe the story of her own conception as told to her by a cousin, even though it seems a pretty likely story. Jessie is taken with a boy named Matthew whose father is a White Supremacist, and it is unclear whether Matthew himself follows this line of thought - although Jessie is so clueless she never even wonders.

I had a hard time with Jessie because she is such an asshole, as is typical of 15-year-old girls. She doesn't seem to care about anyone but herself, and is apparently smart but never really thinks. She was definitely perfectly written but extremely hard to like, and every time it was a Jessie chapter I wished I was reading a Maaike one.

Toronto was a good backdrop for the story, and an essential one for a tale of blending in unseen (which is probably why so many of these "former Nazi" stories are set here). Jessie calls it "Amoeba City" which I quite like.

I thought this was a good book, but I definitely felt the balance of the story-telling was off; Jessie either needed to be a more compelling character or there needed to be more focus on Maaike's story.

Three CN Towers out of five.

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