Monday, November 16, 2020

The Puzzle Women by Anna Ellory

There are three narrative voice in this novel: Lotte, a young girl with Downs syndrome; her older brother Rune, whom she calls Roo; and the ghostly voice of their mother that comes to them only in words written long before.

To give a rapid sketch of the novel without giving away too much, it moves back and forth between Then, January 1989, and Now, 1999. And from West Germany to East Germany both before and after the fall of the wall.

Mama has tried to escape with her children many times, running from her abusive husband. But he is a powerful person in the West German police, and he uses his influence each time to drag her back home. Finally, in desperation, she flees to East Germany to find an old friend who runs a home for battered women, and she takes with her documents of her husband’s that she will use as bartering tools with the East German communist leaders to find safe passage for her and her children.

Rune and Lotte are incredibly close, and Roo vows to care for her always. He, being older, remembers much of the abuse that his mother (and eventually he as well) has suffered from Papa. Lotte, only five when they make their escape, loves her Papa, and believes him to be her protector. 

When a strange package appears in the mail with a notebook and many pages of drawings, Papa, in a rage, tears it all into tiny pieces and tells Lotte that it is all lies from her whore mother. Lotte manages to gather together all the pieces and tries to make sense of these words from Mama whom she has been told is dead. When she reads of a group of women who are trying to reconstruct documents shredded in haste by  the East German secret police as it became obvious that the wall would fall, she decides she has to find these puzzle women to help her reconstruct Mama’s words meant for a her and Rune. 

Saying, as her brother and her mother have always told her that she is more than her Downs and that she is inde-pen-dent, she sets off on her own to go to Nuremberg  and the Puzzle Women.

Turns out Lotte is incredibly good at putting together the fragments of her mother’s pages, and several of the women take her under their wing and help her with the task. Sweet, kind Lotte is loved by most who meet her and look at more than her medical condition. 

Slowly, the mother’s voice emerges in wonderfully poetic strings of words meant for her loved children. The more or less stream of consciousness words of Mama are often hard for this reader to follow and make sense of, but there is a wonderful, poetic beauty to her words.

‘Mama, Roo says…’ Lotte started, hair across her face and her cheeks pink from sleep; disheveled, more a baby when awoke from sleep than any other time. She’s growing up so fast. 

The innocence of her wrapped around me and swelled in the room like a sunrise: expansive, hopeful. Her pajama bottoms scrunched up on one side, hair in a tangle. Moo Bunny under her arm, the cold morning light at her back, but standing in front of me was the warmth of my child fresh from sleep.

A light within light. 

Awoke from bliss, to the world … and into a world that has changed.

Rune is a wonderful artist who begins his artistic career as a graffiti-ist , but who has great talent in portraiture and other forms of art. Hoping in 1999 to escape from his abusive father and take Lotte with him, he applies to an art institute that would provide housing as well as a stipend. Alas, his father manipulates behind the  scenes and makes sure that his application for admission is rejected, in spite of the fact that the teachers are very impressed with his portfolio. 

While this is primarily a novel about spousal abuse, there is much about the two Germanys both before and after the fall of the wall. Mama and her children do find refuge in the East, and the novel is quite fair regarding the good things about East Germany. But Rune is drafted into the Pioneers, and made to inform on his neighbors and even on the remarkable woman who runs the shelter. The poor boy carries with him tons of guilt over not having been able to save his mother, his inability  to keep Lotte safe, and finally for the consequences of his informing on others. 

While this novel is difficult to read, both emotionally and because of its form, I think it is a wonderful novel, and recommend it to all serious readers. I don’t think it lends itself to piecemeal reading. 

No comments:

Post a Comment