New Internationalist

The Element of Water

Issue 336

Stevie Davies is no stranger to combining compelling story telling with moral complexity, so it comes as no surprise that her latest novel is set in Germany immediately after the Second World War.

Set on Lake Plön, a final retreat of the crumbling Third Reich, The Element of Water daringly explores issues of knowledge, guilt, complicity in horror.

The story splits into two time zones. First, the final days of the war after Hitler’s death. Then, 13 years later, when the Lake Plön naval barracks have been turned into a British Forces boarding school where German ex-naval intelligence officer, Michael Quantz (also at Plön in its earlier incarnation) and his son Wolfie now teach music.

Onto the scene arrives, fresh from Wales, a new teacher, Isolde – a young naturalized British woman who does not know her own long-lost father was a high-ranking SS thug. Without in any way excusing the evils of Nazism, this book has a somewhat unusual way into the issues. Isolde is shocked at the level of sadism and degradation at the English boarding school. But her protests are too weak to prevent tragedy. While her fellow English teachers ooze moral superiority over ‘Gerry’, Isolde sees nationalism and anti-semitism flourishing both inside and outside the school walls. It makes one wonder: what form of Anglo-Saxonism might have emerged from a Nazi victory?

The Element of Water has a lyrical, brooding quality and an atmosphere as airless as totalitarianism itself. But there are moments of transcending tenderness too, especially in the love that develops between Isolde and Wolfie. And Davies’ depiction of the fraught, painfully moving relationship between father and son has a tremendous psychological acuity. This is a soulful, nuanced book; full of shades of grey, with no easy answers, punctuated by the odd, welcome flash of wry humour.

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