Book review: Suitcase of Dreams by Tania Blanchard

Tuesday, November 6, 2018 Permalink

When this book arrived I noted it was by Tania Blanchard, the author of The Girl From Munich – a book I’d heard of (of course as it was very popular), but not read. And it wasn’t until I started reading I discovered it listed in Goodreads as The Girl From Munich #2. 

Book review: Suitcase of Dreams by Tania BlanchardSuitcase of Dreams
by Tania Blanchard
Series: The Girl From Munich #2
Published by Simon & Schuster AU
on November 1st 2018
Source: Simon & Schuster
Genres: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
ISBN: 9781925596168
Pages: 448
four-stars
Goodreads

After enduring the horror and chaos of postwar Germany, Lotte Drescher and her family arrive in Australia full of hope for a new life. It’s a land of opportunity, where Lotte and husband Erich hope to give their children the future they have always dreamed of.

After years of struggling to find their feet as ‘New Australians’' the sacrifices they have made finally seem worth it until Erich’s role in the trade union movement threatens to have him branded a communist and endanger their family.

As the shadow of the Vietnam War looms, the unexpected arrival of her former fiancé Heinrich forces Lotte to a turning point. She must decide whether to stay in Australia or return to Germany with him. Her decision will change her life forever – and to finally understand the true meaning of home.

In all honesty I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book. I opened it on a Saturday night and was in the mood for something more action-packed… and then I discovered it was a sequel. I decided I’d give it one hundred pages or so and put it aside for another time if necessary.

But I was hooked, from the get-go. It made no difference at all that I hadn’t read its predecessor and is easily read as a standalone.

The first two-thirds of the book were definitely the strongest. The plot faltered a little towards the end for me, but that was more about the pacing than anything.

I loved Lotte and Erich. Having not met them before I adored their passion for each other and everything they were prepared to go through to give their daughters a better life. And Blanchard pulls no punches about how bloody difficult it was for them.

In an era where immigration is still front page news and people from other countries and cultures struggle to be accepted it’s obvious we’ve not learned many lessons from the past. It’s interesting that there are still those who complain about ‘jobs being taken’ from Australians and the like and yet neither engineer Erich, nor friend and lawyer Franz, have their qualifications recognised here (in the late 1950s and early 1960s) and have to take basic-wage jobs offered to immigrants because Australians won’t do them.

Our (society’s) lack of self-awareness is confronting. Our characters are horrified when Australia joins America in the Vietnam War. WWII left a devastating legacy and it’s a struggle for those who were impacted to understand how it could all be happening again. (And again!)

There’s even a brief reflection on immigration after the Vietnam War and the arrival of South East Asians, following the arrival of European immigrants 10-20 years before. (And of course the very confronting issue of ongoing war in the Middle East and those fleeing warzones and seeking refuge 50 years later!)

But back to the book itself. The never-ending challenges faced by Lotte and Erich (and their family) would be roll-your-eyes over-the-top if you didn’t know this is based on true stories. (And Blanchard explains it’s the story of her grandparents in a note to readers.)

The book’s written from Lotte’s perspective in first person, so we’re very much in her head and privy to her lows and highs, her worries and her ambitions. She’s a very honest narrator and a reliable one. In fact at one point – when she’s unhappy with Erich – I found myself siding with him… even though we were seeing his union involvement (a threat to their life in Australia) through her eyes.

Because of Lotte’s artistic eye readers are treated to Australia through her vision.

This was a harsh land, and I was learning that its beauty was hard won. p 77

And…

It was as if we’d entered another world….

‘This is what the landscape must have once looked like,’ I said to Erich as we stood in the woodland, surrounded by muted green foliage and soft grey trunks of the gum trees. p 134

Our characters’ perceptions of Australians – that we’re too laid back and don’t care about our rights – was an interesting assumption as well. And I think says something about the sort of country we were AND are. Concerns about unionism and communism are hard for me to relate to in this day and age, but even I have noticed (in my lifetime) that – as the diabolical or unbelievable occur (I’m thinking of children on Nauru at the moment, the time it took to legalise gay marriage, ignorance around climate change) we’re more apt to speak out – and thankfully we still can do so without repercussion. Mostly.

The resilience of our characters is amazing. And it’s not everyone so not just a post-war mindset. Lotte’s mother, for example, is prone to wallowing… yet our other characters (particularly Lotte and Erich and Claudia and Franz, their friends) fight bloody hard for every single thing they have and earn.

I don’t tend to read saga-like novels that span years or decades, yet this is one. And for the most part I was riveted. The family are up against so much and their tenacity is tested again and again.

I was also struck by the friendships developed in this book and kindness people can show others. Lotte and Erich are helped on a number of occasions by some very gracious friends – and they repay that with their own generous natures. As someone who struggles to (ever) ask for a favour (of anyone other than my mother or brother perhaps!) I found this interesting.

My one grumble I guess is around the pacing of the novel. It’s a minor thing and is probably just something I’m not accustomed to (given my lack of reading of historical fiction / sagas). We’re very much in the moment for much of this novel, but on occasions we leap forward and Blanchard (albeit deftly) fills us in on what’s happened. But a few of those times I’d been quite connected to what was happening. And suddenly it’s the next year and so-and-so is home from the war and we’re on to the next event.

The pacing at the end particularly felt as if we were rushed, skipping entire parts of the story and getting summaries. Wrap-ups if you like.

Of course, in fairness to Blanchard I realise she’s basing this on real events and can’t pace the events evenly… she would need to decide what her / our time should be devoted to and only she knows of its relevance or poignance.

So… all of that being said, I really enjoyed this book. It spans decades and not only gives us some amazing characters who undergo all sorts of dire life events, but reflects on society, culture and politics of the time, offering up some reminders that we need to better learn from the past – something we’re obviously not doing.

Suitcase of Dreams by Tania Blanchard was published by Simon & Schuster and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 

four-stars

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