‘So: Walter König is dead.’
This is how Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game begins, and how it continues; a cool account of life, art and death, narrated from a distance by Paul Beckermann. The novel flicks between the older Beckermann of ‘now’, in England, painting in his studio, and the Paul Beckermann of the 1920s – young, in love, passionate to the point of insanity.
Young Paul Beckermann arrives at the Bauhaus art school in Weimar in 1922, where passionate insanity is almost a course requirement. In love with the teaching, in love with his new freedom, in love with his new friend Charlotte in particular, Beckermann has a lot to think about, and throws himself into artistic study.
But he’s not the only one in love.
In his group of six close new friends, there are tensions and allegiances, secrets and understandings. When Walter (the Walter older Beckermann tells us is dead at the very beginning of the book) is betrayed, his reaction has consequences that spiral out, through the twenties, through the thirties and forties. Consequences that leave hearts broken, lives lost. Leave older Paul Beckermann alone in England, painting and remembering.
It’s a gripping story. Describing it by its themes – art, passion, love, friendship – can make it sound worthy and a little inaccessible, but Wood’s writing is whip-smart and, at times, brutal. Handing the story to the older Beckermann to tell from his position of distance, allows her to reach through time and hand us facts from the future. The artists we see, happily laughing and drinking in the bohemian parties of the 1920s? These are the architects of the 1930s and 40s. They’re the people killed, the people killing. And Wood tells us which ones make it. Over the champagne, over the sound of the jazz music, older Paul Beckermann shouts from the future: ‘this one is dead.’
That’s not to say there isn’t time for philosophy. Wood’s meditations on the meaning of art are interesting and thought-provoking, made more so by the way she wraps them tightly in plot. There’s the young typographer at the Bauhaus that, after being imprisoned at Buchenwald concentration camp, designs the sign for the gate. Act of collusion or rebellion? What is art? Making things look good? Or truth? Is it, as Master Itten tells his class, cutting open a lemon – smelling and tasting it – before you draw its exterior? ‘How can you draw a lemon without first tasting its flesh?’
It feels like Wood has tasted the flesh of the Bauhaus. The research is thorough but never heavy-handed. We’re reading about people, not the factors leading to an historical event, and the pages are infused with emotion, not peppered with facts. Wood has tasted it, so we taste it too. It’s sour and sweet, with a kick we know is coming.
Walter König is dead, we know. But there’s more to the story than that.
About the Reviewer
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed authors for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a digital copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle
She’ll be interviewing Naomi Wood, author of The Hiding Game for a live Zoom event on Tuesday 23rd March 2012, at 7pm. You can buy tickets for the event, which is organised by Lindum Books, and find ways to buy signed copies here.
To find out more about Naomi Wood, author of The Hiding Game, Mrs Hemmingway and The Godless Boys, out can follow her on Twitter. She also has fascinating information about the real people that inspired on her novels available on her website naomiwood.com