If Daphne du Maurier’s Mandalay is the setting of a single tragedy, this moving novel, telling the story of an architect’s house on the shore of a large lake in Brandenburg, near Berlin, chronicles a whole succession of misfortunes. The tale starts in the years of the Weimar Republic, when the local mayor sells off a piece of land to provide a dowry for his mentally unstable daughter, who then tragically commits suicide. An architect, one of the three original buyers, builds by the lakeside the ‘summerhouse’ of his dreams, and when the Nazis arrive pays his Jewish neighbour – too late, alas – for his share too.
When war breaks out and the Russians storm in, house and garden are trashed and the architect’s middle-aged wife is raped. In GDR times the ‘dream house’ passes to two writers who have suffered under both Nazi and Communist regimes, and then to a couple of pensioners. Finally, now badly dilapidated, it is demolished and the land sold off.
The house really existed and the author, Jenny Erpenbeck, actually lived in it. Could this be why, in a remarkably modest compass, she has succeeded in offering, with such insight and sensitivity, the most poetic account of recent German history one could possibly hope to read?