HELEN PEACOCKE talks to Eliza Graham, whose latest novel is a love story of two refugees struggling to survive in the chaos of post-war Germany
When Eliza Graham’s book Playing with the Moon was published by Macmillan New Writing last year to much acclaim, it was assumed that this was her first novel. Not so. Eliza, who lives in the Vale of the White Horse, had another novel stored away, which she had been working on for several years. Playing with the Moon may have been the first novel she had published, but not the first she had written.
This does not mean that the manuscript for Restitution, which she tucked away for more than six years, is second best. Far from it. Having written it, Eliza needed to distance herself from both the story and the characters. Also, the agent she was using was not getting anywhere with it. So she got on with Playing with the Moon, which has proved a great success, being nominated a World Book Day ‘Hidden Gem’.
Perhaps Restitution would have remained in mothballs forever, had the Macmillan editor not asked her what else she had to offer, once her first book was in the system.
"Because it was a first novel, it had been written and rewritten in several different formats. I had even changed the tense and many of the characters. Now it was time to look at it again," said Eliza, who not only re-read the manuscript when her editor asked about it, but re-keyed every single word.
"I did change it a bit, but I was determined it would not be a cut-and-paste job," she explained.
Restitution’s story opens in 2002, but Eliza then takes the reader back 60 years, just as she did with Playing with the Moon.
"I think 60 years is the ideal time lapse. It’s just long enough ago to be alien to me, but within others' living memory.
"Besides, although I was not alive during the war, I do remember a seeing a number of bomb sites in my youth which ignited my imagination," said 44-year-old Eliza.
The main part of the novel is set at the time when Europe lay in ruins during the closing stages of the Second World War. The war might be over, but the Red Army is making its way across eastern Germany, revenging itself on a petrified population as it goes. For many, the fight for survival is only just beginning.
A blizzard has forced four people to take shelter as the Red Army moves close. The people in the group know each other. Some are old friends, some are enemies, and each of them has information about the others that simply can’t be shared.
By the morning, one of the party is dead, another is missing, and two have been driven into exile. The mystery of how they came to know one another takes 60 years to resolve.
This theme for this tale came to Eliza when she was a teenager.
"In my teens I used to stay with a German family. They’d originally come from the East and had left their castle one night with a handcart full of the family silver, to escape the Russians. "I was always fascinated by their story. At the time, eastern Germany was closed, which made it even more fascinating," said Eliza. To a teenager, such situations seemed glamorous.
"You don’t feel their hunger or desperation as they make their bid for freedom, or the biting cold that grips them as they go.
"All I saw in my youth was an amazing story of survival, which I have never forgotten," she added.
Years later, she started reading books that detailed the plight of the women in eastern Germany during 1945.
"I began trying to imagine how it must have been to have two young children to look after and find yourself pregnant during that time.
"There were hundreds of thousands of children fathered by the Soviet soldiers. What on earth happened when the women’s husbands returned, how did they deal with it?" she asks, for despite addressing a similar problem in Restitution, this subject still troubles her.
Restitution is not based on real characters as such. However, Eliza admits that one character was inspired by Sarah Gainham’s novel Night Falls On the City, which was set in Vienna before and during the war, featuring the actress Julia Homburg, whose husband Franz Wedeker is both a propertied Jew and a prominent socialist. Her extensive reading on this period helped greatly, too.
And what does Eliza hope readers will gain by reading Restitution?
"I hope it will help them realise that the end of the Second World War was not as clean-cut as we would like to think it was," she said.
Restitution is published by Macmillan at £14.99.