Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Sarah Pleydell - Cologne: A Novel - Guest Post
About the Book
London, 1960: Renate von Hasselmann, a nineteen-year-old German au pair, arrives at Victoria Station prepared to meet her new charges, Caroline and Maggie Whitaker. Yet she is ill-prepared for their parents: the mother, Helen, knows more about Nazi Germany than Renate does, and the father, Jack, disarms Renate with his quicksilver charm.
In Sarah Pleydell's debut novel, childhood and history collide, blurring the distinctions between victim and victor, ruin and redemption. With delicate humor, Pleydell presents a portrait of a family on the cusp of great social change, while reminding us that the traumas of war revisit the children of the peace.
My favorite character in Cologne is Maggie Whitaker, Caroline’s little sister. I started out writing the novel from Caroline’s point of view always knowing there would be a younger sibling in the picture, but then Maggie popped into my imagination as a fully formed presence. From the start, she was more than her big sister’s sidekick. She had her own center of gravity and a very distinctive way of conducting herself in the world. Sure she was damaged by her father’s neglect and emotional abuse—the stammer, the thumb sucking, the bed-wetting, the mysterious bruise on her skull, but she always had an independent personhood. She is both ornery and robust, contrary yet grounded. I enjoyed uncovering new details about her personality such as her treasure box filled with such bizarre mementoes as congealed photographs of her parents, stale sweeties (candy) and baby teeth. I discovered she had a habit of pinching things; for example, Renate, the German au pair, left her glasses lying around and Maggie picked them up, snuck them inside her treasure box and squirreled them away.
Maggie also has a vivid and dynamic imagination, which comes alive when she plays with her sister. In the Royal Green House in Kew Gardens she believes herself the Queen of Africa, taking a bath. It’s a more immediate kind of fantasy, painted with a broader brush than Caroline’s, but it’s just as dynamic.
Maggie may be the object, the target almost, of her father’s disdain, (for example, in the scene when she misses the Queen because she has gone inside to “spend a penny”) but in a perverse kind of way she benefits from his neglect. And certainly so as we learn what price Caroline must pay for his attention. The further the story progresses, however, the clearer it becomes that Maggie is the one who comprehends the nuances of the adult world better even than Caroline, who struggles to come to terms with the hard truths that surround the Whitaker family. As a result the balance of power between the two sisters begins to equalize, and by the end it’s Maggie who is in the ascendant when it comes to knowledge and authority. By the end it is Caroline who is stammering her father’s name and Maggie who is making the definitive statements.
What saddens me is what Maggie has to give up to gain this ascendancy. For in a sisterly relationship, especially one forged in dysfunction, one complete self (set of characteristics if you like) gets divided between two, each of the pair ending up with half a grab bag full of qualities. At any one moment these can be switched up. With Eva and Helen, for example, there was a time when Grace was the eccentric and Eva the sensible one; in the time period of the novel it is the other way round. But by the end, it is Maggie who has the power, Caroline the creativity. Maggie’s supremacy costs her her imaginative soul.
Price: $14.95 paperback, $6.47-$12.95 ebook
Release: September 18, 2012
Buy Links: Kindle, Nook, Fuze Publishing (paperback), Fuze Publishing (ebook)
About the Author
A graduate of Oxford and London Universities, Sarah Pleydell is an award-winning writer, performer and playwright who teaches English and writing at the University of Maryland. For the past twenty years, she has been a master teaching artist and arts integration specialist, working with institutions that include The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Luce Institute. In 2000, she won the American Association for Theatre Educators’ award for best book of the year with co-author Victoria Brown. Most recently she wrote the script and played the role of Isadora in Revolutionary: The Life and Times of Isadora Duncan with Word Dance Theater.
Based on her childhood in London, "Cologne" (Fuze Publishing) has been twenty years in the making. It has benefited from fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and input many generous and gifted writers.
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