Eleanor Mitchell raised her daughter to believe in the international struggle for workers’ rights. She taught Jess to see the calm, conservative town of Tamworth, England as enemy territory. By the age of thirteen, Jess is waiting for the immanent collapse of capitalism and socialist revolution. It’s weirdly disappointing then that all she and her mother seem to get while selling their communist paper is the occasional angry shout or threat from the butcher. Shortly after Jo McMillan’s coming-of-age tale, Motherland, opens, Eleanor receives an invitation from East Germany to teach English at a hochschule (a college of sorts). Finally, Jess and Eleanor will be able to see “Actual Existing Socialism.”
Jess and Eleanor are not disappointed by what they find in late 1970s Potsdam. Eleanor throws herself into life as a teacher and representative of the Comintern. Jess’s entry is less smooth. She eventually finds a friend, Marina, who hints at what real life is like in East Germany. Jess and Eleanor, however, remain stubbornly naïve and optimistic about their hosts.
The Mitchell women go off the official script when Eleanor falls in love with a fellow teacher and Jess falls in love with the idea of the Deutsche Demokratische Republic (not the real East Germany, as such). It’s frustrating to see the pair hit the metaphorical Berlin Wall over and over again when the state refuses to let them emigrate. One would think that Jess, if not Eleanor, would quickly grow disillusioned. But it takes a long, long time for Jess to figure out how state communism really works. And she never makes an actual break with her still-idealistic mother. We don’t even see Jess drift away from Eleanor; time suddenly passes and Jess moves to London for college.
Jess’s perspective mostly shows us British socialism in the late 1970s and early 1980s and, compared to the scenes in Potsdam and what I know about East Germany at the time, make one feel like the Brits are just playing at being socialists. They live with minimal surveillance (which appears to have started only when Thatcher became prime minster). They’ve never been through a bloody revolution like Russia’s or a long, actual war like the Vietnamese. The British socialists only know the rhetoric and not the human cost of life in the so-called Workers’ Paradise.
Motherland is the sort of novel that leaves me wondering what the author was trying to say. Am I meant to applaud Eleanor’s idealism? Am I meant to see the growing separation between mother and daughter as the most important point? Is Motherland a thwarted love story? Unlike other novels that have multiple points to make, Motherland just felt muddled to me.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 July 2015.