Summer at Gaglow

Readers of SUMMER AT GAGLOW beware: this is not your usual Esther Freud novel, at least not at first. The novel opens in 1914 at Gaglow, the vast country estate of the Belgards, German Jews. There is Wolfgang, a prosperous merchant; Marianna, his wife; their three daughters and adored older brother; along with the governess whom the girls prefer to the mother they strangely, one is tempted to say “Freudianly,” resent. And so this family story goes, concentrating on the war years and their aftermath, with a few troubling glimpses into the future, especially Marianna’s holding on too long at (or to) Gaglow until she is forced to flee Nazi Germany “with nothing.”

Theirs, however, is only half of Esther Freud’s most ambitious, and best, novel to date: a tale not of two cities, or rather of city (Berlin) and countryside, but of one family in two nations over four generations told in alternating chapters and styles. There are the odd-numbered Belgard sections told in a slightly formal prose that deftly combines the precision and nuance of Jane Austen’s “inch of ivory” with the air of mystery and menace of a high-class Gothic novel. The even-numbered sections are narrated in the up-to-date idiom of Sarah Linder, the Belgards’ great-granddaughter and older version of the main characters of Freud’s two earlier, semi-autobiographical novels HIDEOUS KINKY (1992) and PEERLESS FLATS (1993). She is a twenty-seven-year-old actress with a child but without either proper career or proper family: two half-sisters, a busy, emotionally distant mother, and a painter father (a version of Freud’s own father, the painter Lucien Freud) who thinks of her more as a model than as either a daughter or a mother. Uncertain of her future, Sarah takes an interest in her past, in Gaglow which, following German reunification, is being returned to the Belgards. In the novel’s final chapter, Sarah will visit Gaglow, proclaiming it “beautiful” even as she thinks it “hideous.”

Less aloof and comically frantic than the earlier novels, SUMMER AT GAGLOW is more complex and evocative, a disquieting and strangely meditative novel in counterpoint on the permutating relationships between individual, family, class, nation, and more, much more, all artfully, almost effortlessly worked into the fabric of this complex and amazingly understated triumph of a novel.