The Spectacle Salesman's Family

Issue section: 

Viola Roggenkamp, Virago, £14.99

This autobiography tells the story of post-war German families still traumatised by the Holocaust: Alma Glitzer, her mother Hedwig, her husband Paul, and their teenage daughters Vera and Fania.

Fania narrates the story of growing up in a mixed-faith household in the late 1960s. They live in a cramped apartment in a damp, crumbling Hamburg villa. The girls' non-Jewish father is the book title's spectacle salesman, an Aryan condemned for "defiling the German race". Hedwig and Alma are survivors of the camps and have been years in hiding. The story is about a generation born to damaged parents.

Fania's concerns are those of any adolescent girl: her belated puberty; rivalry with her older, more attractive sister; her desire for change. The tremors and hidden anxieties of adolescence are keenly drawn, as are the usual flare-ups and peace-makings of a family unit - all set against the backdrop of Zionism, student activism and memories of the irretrievably disappeared.

The writing style - multiple voices within the same paragraph, without quotation marks - causes a certain distancing, a feeling that, despite the effective portrayal of claustrophobic intimacy, opulent meals, screaming rows and lots of kisses, the characters are presented as if behind a smoked glass wall.

The main action takes place over several weeks in 1967 as the characters come of age. Fania, for instance, is permitted to go unchaperoned to a fellow pupil's home to help her with her lessons, but instead finds sexual adventure in the arms of the girl's mother. Vera starts an affair within the house with the family's landlord - a Nazi, according to their mother, as is every non-Jewish German with the exception of her husband.

One of the strongest sequences in the book takes place at a party where the victory of "their" side in the Arab/Israeli Six Day War is celebrated with wild joy. Israel is described as a "young man coming of age to save the Jews". A lone dissenting Jewish voice points out that the war is between unequal forces, Israel being an imperial invasion force using "Gestapo tactics". The aunt who has voiced this opinion is told that she is now "dead to the family". Although the narrator says she will miss her aunt, there is no indication that the ideas put forward had merit. For me, this left an unpleasant taste.

The novel is rich with lived experience, but the rambling, inconsequential expression veers dangerously close to day time soap opera.