Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons
This quirky, clever debut novel from British writer Natasha Solomons has an unusual premise: her titular protagonist, in a bid to fit into his new home after fleeing Jewish persecution in continental Europe, writes a list of everything he needs to do or acquire to be a proper Englishman. (The full UK title is Mr Rosenblum’s List or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman.)
Jack Rosenblum’s eccentricity, attention to detail and steadfastness gets him a long way. Before we are even through a quarter of the novel, he has bought and made a success of a carpet company, which furnishes him with the means to buy the right British car (a Jaguar XK120, of course) and a splendid suit, as per Rule 107 of the List: An Englishman must have his suits made at Henry Poole and Co., Savile Row.
The stumbling-block comes with the final item on his 150-point list – an Englishman must be a member of a golf course. He makes attempts to enter every club in the vicinity by means both fair and ever so slightly foul – he is driven to the latter only out of desperation; Jack is a person of great goodness – but it is all for nought. To the men to whom he is appealing, his Jewishness is not an encumbrance to be shaken off and replaced with English trappings; it is an unconquerable obstacle.
The latent anti-Semitism of the time is evident in a scene in which Jack and his wife Sadie are invited for drinks at the home of a local aristocrat; the two are unaware that they are being observed as if they were zoo animals by the host and his friends.
Sadie is a woman who could best be described as long-suffering – her husband is in some ways a mystery to her, and she doesn’t share his desire for assimilation. He takes seriously the immigration officer’s edict to speak nothing but English, resorting to German curses only under extreme duress, while Sadie sneaks away to share German conversation and food with a friend. Their differences in personality and temperament are many, and are only emphasized by the discombulating effect of their new, foreign environment. Sadie yearns for her parents and brother, lost in the war. Their daughter Elizabeth, studying at Cambridge, is a distant figure whom Jack fears he shames with his lingering Germanness.
When Jack lights upon the perfect solution to the golf-club snag – why, he will buy a 60-acre property in rural Dorset and build his own – Sadie is baffled. But her husband is “five-foot-three-and-a-half of sheer tenacity” and, when all else fails, he starts to confide his travails in letters to the American golf legend Bobby Jones, which has unforeseeable results.
Solomons deftly balances the novel’s lightheartedness with quiet acknowledgement of what real people like the Rosenblums would have experienced in 1940s England. From the early destruction of Jack’s exhaustively crafted first hole to the blatant bid to drive him from the countryside altogether, the novel contains several affecting examples of bigotry.
It is no less entertaining for that. Solomons is skilled at balancing plot with heart, and she is a highly intelligent writer. As an aside, I love food in novels – what characters eat and how they behave around food can be wonderfully revealing. Some of the loveliest passages involve food – Elizabeth, visiting her parents, scoffs six vanilla crescents as she chats in the kitchen; Sadie bakes her lost mother’s Baumtorte in a fit of melancholy – and I learned from Solomons’ blog that she is a true-cake lover herself.
Solomons’ grandparents were evacuated from Berlin before the war, and her blog features some of her grandmother’s recipes – including the aforementioned crescents. It helps to explain the deliciousness of Mr Rosenblum’s List.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Hachette