Review: Windstill by Eluned Gramich
There are those writers whose work you anticipate with relish and Eluned Gramich is most certainly one of those. Her first full-length novel Windstill more than fully realizes the ample promise shown in the sublime Japan travelogue Woman Who Brings Rain and in the spooky novella Sleep Training.
Dark secrets suppurate at the heart of the book, some of them historical, the others much more recent.
Twenty-two year old Lora has dropped out of university, having just brought her relationship with her obsessive boyfriend Daniel to an end, and that with good reason.
Without giving too much away he is what we might describe as a digital voyeur and so she is fleeing him and his wanton male gaze.
Deaths and entrances
Lora flees Swansea for Hamburg where her grandmother Elfriede is very slowly picking up the pieces of her life after her husband had died unexpectedly.
As with so many deaths there are entrances too, and this time it’s the appearance of on-his-uppers hotelier Gerold, who shows up sniffing around for an inheritance, or at least enough euros to bail him out of impending penury as his wife is about to take him to the cleaners.
Lovelorn Daniel also shows up in Germany, desperate to rekindle his doomed romance with Lora, quite unaware of the fact that she is kindling a new relationship with a young anaesthetist called Alexei.
Lora is also getting pretty involved with some historical detective work as she tries to piece together what terrible things had happened to her great aunt at the end of second World War when Russian soldiers roamed the East German countryside.
It’s a troubling secret her grandmother would very much rather Lora leave well alone, even as the old lady slips slowly into the past, remembering time with her departed husband Ernst but also old boyfriends, dinner parties with Prague ham and bee-sting cakes and seaside holidays when her brother would help her walk across dead jellyfish to the water so they could swim together.
It’s a novel full of the drift of memories, which passes as the softest thistledown across its pages.
The title of the novel, Windstill, is worth unpicking a little. It’s the German word for stillness, ‘a word half-way between English and German, a momentary lull in bad weather.’
And this is a book busy with two cultures, testing weather and full of questions about longing and belonging:
It was the phrase at home that did it. In German: zu Hause. As soon as Elfriede travelled back there, to her homeland, Lora found herself travelling too; far away from where she was at that moment. The words lifted her out of her body and transported her to wherever seemed more real; the playground at the back of her Welsh school, brick walls dappled by oak leaves, the Wilhelmsburg park, the shadow of the bunker.
Gramich is very good at bringing to places to life in sudden brief bursts of detail. The former East Prussia is ‘dark forests and an amber coast’ and in the German country side there are redcurrants ‘growing in low, prickly bushes with thousands of ruby jewels.’
Meanwhile the city of Hamburg itself is ‘where the Saxons live, eating their pickled herrings and raw pork and god knows what else.’
Indeed any places are briskly conjured up by local food and drink, such as the town of Pillkaller which gives its name to a brand of beer which might go well with ‘schnapps, with a slice of Leberwurst and mustard balanced on the top of the shot glass.’
These aren’t just pleasures, for as Lora reasons as she muses on her grandmother’s existence ‘at the end of your life, the most core elements are food, home, family, and not much else. It was pleasant to live for a few days in this world of retirement where the fundamentals are perfected and repeated.’
Delicately and revealingly phrased and full of beautifully adjudged nuances, Windstill is a mature account of the games people play, including in this instance the game of Ludo and drinking games galore.
It amply demonstrates how Gramich is supremely well attuned to the many facets of culture, to the vagaries of love and to so many of life’s complexities and also how deft she is at conjuring up a busy cast of characters – breathing life into them so that they sweat and pulse, feel abject fear and happily go shopping.
In short there’s an awful lot to enjoy about this young writer’s debut novel and when you slowly turn the last page you might well agree that there is so very much to savour.
Windstill by Eluned Gramich is published by Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. It is available from all good bookshops.
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