Watt’s debut novel traces the tangled legacies of a long-ago trip to Germany by British high school students.
In 1978, when Andrew was 15, he stayed with a host family while on a field trip to Germany. Now, in 2003, as he visits that country on business, he feels compelled to stir up the past and explore long-suppressed memories. He goes to see Matthias, the son of the host family, to ask some questions—particularly about Karla, Matthias’ older sister. As an awkward adolescent, Andrew was humiliated and angered by an encounter with her. It turns out that other students on the school trip are also still affected by it, including Anne, now Andrew’s ex-wife, and the free-spirited Clare, on whom Andrew has long had a crush. Through a series of visits and conversations, Watt’s characters come to new understandings of their relationships and of the significance of the events that marked them. The novel starts out very well; its structure expertly builds tension as the reader waits to discover more information, particularly about Karla. In the crucial scene between her and Andy, Watt beautifully and wrenchingly portrays the vulnerable boy’s deeply mixed feelings, and he nicely balances this first section with present-day and long-ago perspectives. The next section, the story of Anne, a sexually repressed, emotionally battened-down Englishwoman, lacks the freshness of the first, and the following section, about Matthias, is also not as strong. Watt handles his characters’ realizations naturalistically and insightfully; it’s a bit like gathering the characters in James Joyce’s 1914 short story “Araby” for a 25-year-reunion but without the power of that story’s limited perspective. The novel provides keen observations and excellent characterization throughout, but as it continues, its focus dissipates due to so many parallel events and the logistics of simply getting people together in one room to chat. Readers may also find that the final chapters’ easy resolutions smack a bit of wish fulfillment.
A promising, often insightful first novel.