Motherland by Jo McMillan

When I was growing up in my teens, suddenly out of the blue a letter arrived for me from the German Democratic Republic. I was intrigued (owing to my growing love of things Russian) and also vaguely alarmed – who was this person writing to me out of nowhere, how had they got my address and what did they want? It turned out to be (apparently!) from a girl called Astrid who wanted a penfriend; I never could quite work out where she got my address from (maybe one of those teen magazines where you put your name into a penfriend finding section had crept through the Iron Curtain) but we did exchange letters. Astrid also send parcels, of East German sweets and postcards, which always arrived quite battered, as if they’d been examined on the way…


The sweets and letters are long gone, but I still have the postcards she sent of her home town Gera, together with many of the GDR and its landmarks; and so with this memory in mind, I was obviously going to be attracted to Jo McMillan’s new novel, “Motherland”. Set in 1970s Tamworth, it tells the story of a small outpost of the GDR which exists there; teenage Jess and her mother Eleanor, committed Socialists from a long line, sellers of The Morning Star and The Only Communists in The Town!

Jess and Eleanor are firm in their beliefs, never questioning the party line, hawking their newspaper to indifferent (at best) or downright hostile locals, and trying to bring about a world revolution in a small Midlands town – so you get the ideal that things are doomed from the start…. Into their lives comes Actually Existing Socialism; Eleanor is a teacher, and the two are sent off to the real GDR to take a summer school their, the first time they’ve come into contact with the real Socialist world. Here they meet a varied number of characters, including most importantly Peter and his daughter Martina. The two one-parent families (both missing parents are dead) bond straight away – Peter and Eleanor are obviously very mutually attracted, and Jess and Martina seem to be finding a missing sibling.

However, this being the GDR, with all the Cold War complexities, things are never going to be straightforward. Despite repeated visits to the GDR, it beings to seem as if Peter and Eleanor will never manage to become the perfect Socialist couple; things deteriorate in Tamworth as the natives get hostile when world events provoke them; Jess’s school life goes downhill, and she joins a very odd Young Socialist group; and the many contacts from the GDR remain nebulous. It’s often hard to tell friend from foe, and as Jess starts to mature we start to wonder if her views will continue to coincide with her mother’s, or will her experiences of Actually Existing Socialism change them?

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As you might have guessed, I really loved “Motherland”. McMillan’s writing is excellent; she captures brilliantly the voice of Jess, naive and committed at the start of the book, knowing and more questioning by the end. Although there’s perhaps a certain irony in places in her portrayal of the various members of the counter-culture groups, she never belittles their belief and their faith in their cause, even if there’s a certain Tooting Popular Front quality to some of their actions (anyone else remember “Citizen Smith” with fondness?) McMillan is also very strong on the mother-daughter relationship; this can be a slippery one, particularly when a girl reaches her teens, and she cleverly portrays the way the roles of mother and daughter often switch between the two protagonists. These are real women, dealing with domesticity, intolerant schools, moustaches and coping on their own.

I glanced over my shoulder, and my mum had turned into somebody else: a middle-aged woman in an Oxfam anorak, her zigzag parting grey, her face puffed with tiredness. A woman who, every week regardless, found energy she hadn’t got to shout big slogans at a very small town.

What’s also clever, and also rather chilling, is what’s often *not* said. Negotiating the political landscape of the GDR is not easy, with its unspoken rules, hidden alliances and codes of conduct. The shadowy world of spies and agents seems very far away from the women’s simple belief in equality and peace. Politics very often gets in the way of life, to an extent that Eleanor may be able to accept but that Jess most likely will not. Jess cannot always instantly read the adult code, but by the end of the book she is very clear-eyed about things and has subtly moved on to make her own life away from her mother. The ending is sad, somehow inevitable and perhaps a little ambiguous.

“Motherland” works on a number of levels: as a portrait of left-wing life in the last part of the 20th century; as a snapshot of life behind the Iron Curtain; as a hint that perhaps we shouldn’t force our views on our children, but should allow them to make their own way in the world; and as moving portrait of female familial relationships. The book had a particularly personal resonance with me because of my own experiences as standing out as one of the few people in *my* small town with leftward leanings (though I was never as brave and committed as Jess and Eleanor!) “Motherland” is McMillan’s debut, and it’s an excellent one – highly recommended!

(Many thanks to publishers John Murray and Bookbridgr for the review copy – much appreciated!)