Review: The List
From Mitteleuropa to Finchleystrasse
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Jewish refugees arrive at Harwich to take their first steps in Britain in 1938
By Martin Fletcher
Thomas Dunne Books, £17.99
Recent times have seen a wave of novels about Jewish refugees who came to Britain from central Europe: two by Natasha Solomons, David Baddiel's The Secret Purposes and Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs among them. Martin Fletcher's The List is the latest and - along with All That I Am, by Anna Funder, reviewed on this page - extends this growing genre into thriller territory.
The List moves between a boarding house in Goldhurst Terrace in north-west London in 1945 and the battle for Jewish statehood in post-war Palestine. At first, these two stories seem unrelated but we become increasingly aware of a deadly connection.
A group of Jewish refugees are thrown together in north London after the war, in particular Edith and Georg Fleischer, a young couple from Vienna expecting their first baby. Like all of their friends, the Fleischers are in mourning for the loved ones they left behind.The book is full of moving accounts of how they desperately hope for news from across the Channel. "It was the same for all of them," Fletcher writes. "Phone calls, letters, rumours, a name on a list on a wall." Worst of all is the newsreel footage of the camps. "I keep looking for someone I know," says one survivor.
There are two outsiders in the group. Anna, Edith's cousin, has miraculously survived Auschwitz and made it to London to join her only remaining relatives. And there is the mysterious Ismael, an Egyptian antisemite, who lives in the same boarding house.
As the novel moves towards its climax, it interweaves between three story-lines: a real-life plot to assassinate Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary; the mysteries surrounding Anna's time at Auschwitz; and her growing relationship with Ismael.
Some of this story must have been familiar already to Martin Fletcher: he is the son of Jewish refugees from Austria who lived in Goldhurst Terrace and he has written an award-winning book, Walking Israel. Having immersed himself in the history of the period, he brings to life the London of Jewish refugees from Bloomsbury House and Lyons Corner House to the Cosmo and Dorice restaurants on the Finchleystrasse, wiener schnitzel and all.
The research and the growing intensity of the plot are the novel's greatest strengths. The story sucks you in and increasingly offers reminders that, for every Schindler's list, there were many other lists that bear testimony to terrible loss.
David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer