A Sea Change, by Michael Arditti

A voyage around our grandfathers
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The Independent Culture

Unity, Michael Arditti's previous novel, shifted the tensions of late 1930s MittelEuropa forward several decades in a mock-documentary account of a radical film-maker's attempt on the career of Unity Mitford. Its successor, while examining many of the same themes, returns to historical first base with a dramatisation of the voyage of the SS St Louis - the Jewish refugee ship that left Hamburg for a notional safe haven in Havana in May 1939, only to be forced to carry its thousand or so passengers back across the Atlantic in an increasingly desperate search for asylum.

"Dramatisation" is possibly the wrong word, as A Sea Change is cast as the memoir of an octogenarian survivor, Karl Frankel, written for the benefit of his grandchildren. Wealthy proprietors of a famous Berlin department store, the Frankel party - 15-year-old boy, patriarchal grandfather, mother, aunt, a mentally disabled sister and the latter's nurse - turn out to have an extra member on board in the shape of Karl's scapegrace, alcoholic father, expelled from the family eight years before. Grandpa's death and further revelations compound the lurking disquiet. As Karl puts it, "There was a safety in boundaries, even when they were made up of Nazi do-nots. Now everything was as fluid as the view from my window." Happily, distraction is provided by a blossoming romance with 14-year-old Johanna, en route to meet her non-Jewish father.

Neatly written and full of incidental horrors, mostly provided by the presence of a gang of zealous Nazi firemen, A Sea Change nevertheless spends much of its time grappling with two procedural problems. The first goes with the territory. The St Louis's trip happened: we know, even if the passengers do not, that it will be turned back at Cuba. The second has to do with the form. However angered or elegiac, Karl's reminiscent forte is less the high drama which the situations beneath his gaze might demand than a kind of observant sedulousness.

Where the novel succeeds is in the incongruity of some of its detail. Arditti is good at conveying the gradual descent of well-heeled cruise to freedom into floating tragedy. The fancy-dress balls and elaborate menus give way to nervous terror and dwindling food-stocks. Karl's ornithological fixation, meanwhile, operates both as a symbol - as when a Nazi customs official pulverises his collection of birds' eggs - and a reminder of lost decencies. There is a terrific scene in which Karl and the bird-fancying ship's captain shut out the anxieties of the Cuban stand-off by striking up a conversation about the habits of the albatross.

The shipboard romance continues to flourish, with Johanna - in whom, whatever her putative reality, I rarely got to believe - both repudiating the parent who paddles out to rescue her from Havana and allowing her relationship with Karl to be consummated (contraceptives provided by the purser) in a state cabin. Much more intriguing is Sendel, the hard-as-nails, pogrom-evading Ukrainian Jew, with a scar on his forehead doing service as the mark of Cain. His habit of dropping gnomic remarks of the "I'll survive. I've done so for thousands of years" variety seems to fulfil the role of ghostly Jewish atavar.

A Sea Change is full of these ghosts. Though the wait off Havana is vividly realised - the suicide who throws himself over the rail tearing at the slashed veins of his wrist, the boats full of journalists flocking alongside - much of the novel is full of solitary brooding on a lost, family past. If the novel's effects are occasionally jeopardised by the form Arditti has chosen, this is also as serious, compassionate and morally engaged as anything he has done.

DJ Taylor's latest novel is 'Kept' (Chatto & Windus)