Winter Games

winter gamesI’m not sure how many people will follow me if I make allusion to The Producers, a film and a musical about two dodgy producers who fall upon a get-rich-quick scam that involves launching a musical so bad that it is destined to close after opening night. The musical they pluck from its happy obscurity is Hitler in the Springtime, a thigh-slapping camp-fest in which glorious Aryan types (featuring a blond John Barrowman) support a mincing, prima donna-ish Hitler. Well, the novel Winter Games by Rachel Johnson had an unmistakeable flavour of Hitler in the Springtime about it, being that unusual creature, a funny story about Nazis. What’s potentially confusing is that it’s also, fundamentally, an upmarket piece of chick-lit, inspired by the aristocratic family history of the author. And at this stage in the review, you’ll just have to take my word for it that even if the politics are a bit dodgy and the whole thing a bit bonkers, it does sort of work and is certainly entertaining.

This is one of those stories with parallel plotlines, one in the past, one in the present, and as is almost always the case with them, the story in the past is the more compelling. The novel opens in 1936 with 18-year-old Daphne Linden, a don’s daughter in Oxford, being sent off to a German finishing school. Daphne knows she’s being sent away from home because her depressed mother recently lost a baby and her philandering father is busy seducing another student. There has to be a ‘human sacrifice’ for these various complications, and Daphne is it. She doesn’t mind, however, as a) the school she is going to is co-educational and Daphne is longing to meet that other species, boys, and b) as a sop, her father is suggesting her best friend, the buxom and reckless Betsy Barton-Hill, joins her later on. Once in Germany, the girls quickly fall into the clutches of cousins Siegmund and Otto, the former gung-ho for the Nazis, the latter outraged by the party and their treatment of the Jews. But much more important than politics are the romantic entanglements that arise during their time in Siegmund’s family chalet at the Winter Olympics. It’s the tone that cracks me up in this part of the narrative, however, which is sort of Enid Blyton on amphetamines, or more precisely, what happened to the Chalet School girls when they grew up and their hormones got the better of them.

In the present day, or 2006 at least, Francie Fitzsimon, Daphne’s granddaughter, is a travel writer for a glossy and pointless magazine. Much in Daphne’s life is glossy and pointless; it’s all about hanging out in the right places to be seen, and buying the right merchandise and lusting after her boss, Nathan, who is a complete jerk and she knows this, while being half-heartedly married to an advertising exec. If it’s not strung up in lights for you already, you should be warned that there are unsympathetic characters in this part of the story. The point is that Daphne’s life is supposed to be vacuous, and that Daphne herself remains half-formed and somewhat clueless because she is living ‘in a time of peace and plenty, when houses doubled in value every ten years, households threw away as much food as they consumed, and men didn’t die for their country, they did Yogacampus or BeautCamp Pilates.’ This is possibly true for a small section of media-obsessed childless people living in central London, and quite possible not true for millions of others. But this is not a book that is out to make general points. Instead, it’s a sort of apologia for the aristocracy who never understood what Hitler was about until it was too late, sent down the ages to a kind of metropolitan soul who has (self-righteously) too much money and plenty of critical judgement about everybody other than themselves.

Francie finds a picture of her grandmother with Hitler, and this sets her off on a semi-ironic Quest (she knows her actions follow a certain clichéd route, but that doesn’t prevent her genuinely hoping for enlightment from them), to find out what Granny did during the war. As the story unfolds, so Francie has to take a slightly wincing look at herself and her principles, and try to care about something more than her next purchase from Net-à-Porter. ‘You have nothing in your lives,’ an ageing but still game Betsy Barton-Hill tells her. ‘Not even a war.’ And this is doubtless a reasonable rebuke for a generation who have never had to want for a single thing, and yet have failed to take intellectual or moral advantage of such riches.

And yet, of course, the storyline set in 1936 is about two silly teenage girls, without a clue in their heads, skipping arm in arm in brand new embroidered dirndls towards trouble. And how their own parents believed that Germany was somehow related to Great Britain because Queen Victoria’s grandson was on a Ducal throne there, and that a second war would never happen, not after the devastation of the first. It’s not like the generations that went through the Second World War were intrinsically more brave and dutiful, they simply had courage and sacrifice thrust upon them. However you want to read this, I found the intergenerational themes in this novel very interesting, and the rest of it is a bit of a romp. If you loved Hitler in the Springtime, and could see the funny side of it, then this is definitely a book for you. Oh, and in all honesty, it might help to be female to read it, though I would hate to put off any intrigued males. It’s just that, in my experience (limited), men reading books by women that have even a whiff of politics about them can be very scathing. Please feel free to leave opposing examples in the comments.



20 thoughts on “Winter Games

  1. I love “The Producers” and I am never a believer in books that are in any sense optimised for one sex or the other. I’d love to leave an erudite comment refuting your penultimate sentence but at the moment I can’t. It’s just that intellectually and emotiionaly I don’t agree with it. I somehow hope that’s also true of me in practice!

  2. I think we may have had the conversation already in which we agree you do break the mould! And yet, I could not in all honesty recommend this one to you as it is a bit… shallow. I wouldn’t hesitate to try you out on it if it were a properly meaningful book and it was only the gender thing that stood in the way. The Producers is great, though, and Mr Litlove thinks it hilarious too, so I should add a note here that no gender distinction applies to it! Hmmm, maybe one day we should try you out on a range of supposedly women-oriented fiction. That might be very intriguing.

  3. What a strange sounding book! I’ve not seen The Producers though it was a hit on Broadway and I’ve heard about it. I didn’t Know John Barrowman was in it, and blond! He’s so nice to look at and I miss Torchwood for that reason alone. Sigh.

    • He is extraordinarily pretty isn’t he? I do suggest that you and the Bookman rent The Producers one evening. I think you might both enjoy it (even if just for JB’s hilarious appearance!). The novel is probably less odd than I’ve made it sound – it’s quite coherent in its way. It’s just the sort of book that when you look back at it, you think ‘hang on a minute….’ in a head-scratching way!

  4. It’s so true about those dual time frame books, the earlier time is always more interesting. I ran a Summer School two years ago based around three books that worked that way and in every case it was the early story we preferred.
    And I am going to stand up for the Chalet School. I’ve always felt that Brent-Dyer was remarkable courageous to write a book that said Nazi bad but German good and deserving of our sympathy in 1942.

    • Oh the Chalet School books were great – I read them all as a girl and loved them. I don’t mean their citing to be in any way derogatory to the originals! Did your summer school read The Chymical Wedding? That was the first dual time frame novel I ever read and I remember loving it but not much more than that. I’d so like to have an adult perspective on that novel, though I don’t have time at the moment to reread it!

  5. DP has probably already read most “of supposedly women-oriented fiction” one might throw at him; he really does break the mold. Typical cat!

    I would like to hear if your or any of your readers can think of any book with this sort of resent/past parallel plotline where the story set in the present is AS INTRIGUING than the story set in the past. I think you are correct in stating that this is usually the case, but are there any exceptions?

  6. I greatly preferred the contemporary storyline in Possession! That’s an example! And oh, in Arcadia, the past storyline is more interesting, but not by much — I mean you don’t spend the contemporary parts wishing to get back to the past.

    (This sounds charming. And I did follow the Producers reference, although in the context of the Gene WIlder/Zero Mostel film. Which was amazing.)

    • Possession is another of those books I wish I could remember better. I read it as a treat after my finals at university, and it wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped (the previous year I read Jilly Cooper, so my qualitative methods are distinctly suspect). Arcadia I haven’t read. Nor have I seen the Gene Wilder film – I’ll have to check it out!

  7. I know about The Producers (Matthew Broderick’s) and after reading your post, just feel the book belongs to that category wherein the Holocaust and Hitler’s atrocities being dealt with from a light and comical way that some find it very difficult to accept, remember the film “Life Is Beautiful”? I’ve just finished reading a bio on Bonhoeffer, and now listening to the audiobook of Erik Larson’s In The Garden of Beasts, the heavy and sombre reality is too overwhelming. I guess the ‘cognitive dissonance’ will always be present for me when it comes to the lighter handling of Hitler.

    • I do remember Life is Beautiful! Which was an altogether more penetrating film than this novel intends to be. To be fair, the action stops before WW2 begins and so the light-hearted tone is adopted only towards the build-up to the regime. But it IS always odd to find that time referred to with anything other than sombre sobriety. Cognitive dissonance is a good way of describing it!

  8. I too love The Producers, and I love the sound of this book, of which I have never heard. Yet another for the TBR (sigh).

  9. I tried to think about all the books with story lines in the past and present I’ve read and was wondering if I alos enjoyed the chapters of the past more but I’m not sure. I don’t do too well with this type of narrative. That book cover…
    This does sound interesting.

  10. I get the reference and I found the movie funny so might like this book then. I have a question though: why is it that the past in such books is always more compelling? And since it is, why do writers continue to write this sort of double time period story?

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