Review: The Element of Water is a novel writhing with secrets

Background image by Matthias Süßen (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Jon Gower

The latest phase of the Library of Wales project – which aims to represent and republish highlights of Wales’ literary heritage in English – has seen some fairly recent titles get a new airing.  Rachel Trezise’s dark and troubled quasi-autobiographical novel ‘In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl’ was thus duly repackaged and to boot welcomed into the canon.  Now, Stevie Davies’ 2001 novel ‘The Element of Water’ acquires a new black, white and red livery and hopefully a new audience.

Davies fills a broad canvas with a dark sweep of history, in the closing shadows of the Second World War, when the rump of the German military command tried to reorganize at Lake Plön in Schleswig Holstein in the face of the oncoming Allies’ advance.  This links with a period, over a decade later, when a teacher from Wales takes up a new post on the edge of the same lake.

A former refugee from continental Europe, Isolde, or Issie Dahl finds out that staff at the British School on the lakeside blithely tolerate cruelty in the same way as did the Nazis who collected here as Hitler’s grip on history itself weakened.  The Fuhrer had handed on responsibilty to Grand Admiral Dönitz, but his time at the helm was pre-determinedly short, although a brutal oneas renegades and deserters were summarily executed and ended up shot or hanging from the trees.

Lake Plön lies at the heart of the novel and its still waters run very, very deep.  Standing on a jetty that juts out into the lake Issie ‘rests both hands on the wooden rail, smooth from a history of many hands, looked out into the haze of silver lake.  The bordering forests were misted by the same pallor as the immense sheet of water.  Over there, straight ahead, lay the Danish border, beyond lake, pines and hills more soft and slight than the beacons of Brecon.  A hidden world of invisible plains and polders.’

The lake is not only elementally deep but is also the repository of many secrets, as the anxious Nazis had cast their guns and Iron Cross medals into its waters, desperately keen to shed the trappings of their military identities.  ‘The Element of Water’ is indeed a novel fair writhing with secrets, from uncertainty about parentage to the new identities taken by former military in post-war Germany, as war criminals intent on ethnic cleansing turn into vacuum cleaner salesmen…or ‘arachnids presiding at the centre of a network of networks, angling a line here, a strand there.  They watched with cynical amusement the desecration of Jewish graveyards; old comrades’ gatherings that turned into rallies with mass-murderers parading in field grey, thousand upon thousand, witb banners, bands, songs and swastikas.’

 

Desperate

One of the most satifying features of this richly textured novel is the deft way in which different period and locations intersplice and connect, from 1930s Munich through 1940s Minsk to Swansea at the tail end of the 1950s, often making the past and its moral aberrations reverberate tellingly into the future.  So the Nazi’s driving notion of racial supremacy – which results in heartless massacres, mass graves and war against the Jews to callously “get rid of the trash; replace it with perfect SS specimens”– echoes through the schoolgirl cruelty meted out in the dormitories to a young Jewish girl called Rachel, who seemingly takes her own life.

While Davies does not stand in judgment on any of these acts, there is a sense of linkage not only between the different places and times depicted in the book but also between then and now.  The theme of displaced persons and refugees – there is one heartbreaking moment when a young woman offers her body in exchange for a piece of chocolate – is surely redolent of now, when migrants face daily peril and challenge to move from country to country, or, say, brave the English channel in a small boat.  As is the notion that desperate men will cling to power by whatever means.

Stevie Davies is not what you might describe a conventional historical novelist – she structures her books too adventurously and probes into psychology too deeply for that tag to fit – yet she is never one to shy away from taking the past as her living, breathing canvas.  ‘The Element of Water’ is part of by now a long line of confidently intelligent novels which have depicted such matters as the lives of a nonagenarian veteran of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, or the Suez crisis, or the Quakers in the English Civil War or the scientific awakenings of Victorian Britain.

She is also a supreme stylist, one who calibrates human behaviour, no matter how dark or untoward that may be, in writing both poised and elegant.  ‘The Element of Water’ is a multi-facted story crafted by a novelist at the height of her powers and deservedly won the Wales Book of the Year in 2002.

A forensic examination of human behaviour in times of both war and peace, its re-presentation in the Library of Wales – now numbering 50 volumes on the collective bookshelf of the nation – is a shrewd choice.  It reminds us of the controlled, compelling prose and ready, ample gifts of one of the country’s most accomplished writers.

The Element of Water by Stevie Davies is published by Parthian and can be bought here.

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