Fiction: Motherland by Jo McMillan
John Murray, €10.99
Published 08/08/2016 | 02:30
You certainly wouldn't vilify Eleanor Mitchell for romanticising the idea of a socialist republic in 1978 Western Europe. She and daughter/narrator Jess, 13, attend rather innocuous Communist Party meetings which, in their native Tamworth, are more the enclave of socks and sandals rather than dour uniforms and joyless toil. It's quaint, if anything.
Jo McMillan's bemusing and charming roman a clef of her own childhood in Staffordshire and her close relationship with her Red Mother begins with a very English sense of the preposterous that chimes in the age of Brexitdom.
Jess and her mum hand out flyers and copies of the Morning Star in the local supermarket to unimpressed punters. When Eleanor accepts an offer to teach English in East Germany, it is a very different world they enter. Not only are they now ensconced within (as the chapter calls it) "Actually Existing Socialism" but they are given a hero's welcome, albeit with a caution: "I remind you, at all times silence. Remember where you are. Incidents do occur."
Motherland grows some teeth as the reality of the communist ideal, viewed until now from a dead-end English midlands town, is writ large in the "razored lawns" and "still air" of the GDR. In this superbly penned debut, McMillan draws affectionately on her own revolutionary youth and the fracture between her and her mother when the Berlin Wall fell. The era lends itself well to the absurd, which McMillan exploits hilariously but with much heart as well.