Jakob's colours by Lindsay Hawdon - book review: Hope in his pockets

Reminiscences pierced by the ugly intrusion of the present

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The Independent Culture

Someone panicking is advised to connect with the physical objects around them, to pin themselves to reality by touching a sleeve or a chair. Jakob is an eight-year-old gypsy, fleeing the Nazis. He carries pebbles and glass, drawing solace from their texture and colour.

As Jakob hides in the Austrian woods, we enter a fairy tale, with the classic scenario of the child lost in the forest. He hears “the ghost-hoot of an owl. Breeze-blown branches and the creaking of trunks.” And just as this fairy tale has its wolf, the Nazis, it also has its wizard, Yavy, Jakob’s father, who creates paints by grinding rocks and roots. He “discovered the magic of salt. Mixed it with mauve-tinged azures, violent reds … found vermilion sunsets in mercury sulphide, fired them to an orange cinnabar”. Colour offers sustenance for the frightened boy in this land of barbed wire and mass graves. Colour is memory but it’s also hope.

The novel has three narrative threads. As Jakob flees, and Yavy looks back to his gypsy childhood, we also have the story of Lor, Jakob’s mother. Her tale begins in 1920s Somerset, full of the comforting clutter of middle-class life, of “silver spoons, Worcester china and George III silvershelled ladles”. But she is sent to a clinic in Austria in the 1930s, throwing her from the safety of England into the dark fairy tale.

Spreading the story across time and space, from the 1920s to the 1940s, from England to Austria and Switzerland, creates a stuttering effect, slowing the narrative, but we soon accept that this is how memory would function, reminiscences pierced by the ugly intrusion of the present.

The book’s fairy tale tone, and its themes of hope and beauty, are matched by Hawdon’s poetic language. We see “a sky of rubbed chrome” and a lake which “glistens in the half-moon light, honey-coloured, with a promise of tranquillity”. Yet the author doesn’t carry this fluency into her dialogue which sounds strained, never natural.

This is particularly true in the case of Yavy, who says such things as: “They been saying that of me. But I knowing I not mad. Been here years ’nough to know it.” At times, this stilted dialogue seems to want to force itself into something poetic, creating more oddities.

Don’t look to this novel for a pacy narrative. Instead it’s about the whorl of memories that surround and sustain us. With such psychological clout, a twisting plotline would be mere decoration.

Hodder £14.99