The Other Child is the first of German author, Charlotte Link’s books to be translated into English. The cover of my copy announces the fact that it has sold 16 million copies, so I assume that having been a best seller on the Continent, the publishers have decided to see if they can emulate the success of the Scandinavian crime writers and open up an English speaking market. I have to say that I’m not sure how far their attempt is going to take them.
The story is actually set in England, both during the Second World War and in the present day. The back story, revealed in a series of e-mails, takes place in the London of the Blitz and in the Yorkshire countryside surrounding the holiday resort of Scarborough. The modern day events are focused entirely in and around the Yorkshire town.
Eleven year old Fiona is evacuated out of London and with her goes ‘the other child’, a neighbour whose entire family has been killed and whose presence amongst the evacuees nobody officially recognises. Nobody recognises him, nobody wants him, other than the kindly farmer’s wife with whom Fiona is placed, and there begins the story that will echo down the years.
Fast forward to the present day and an horrific murder may have one upside for the police in as much as it appears to have similarities to an unsolved crime languishing on their books and might therefore lead to the perpetrator of the earlier killing. All attention focuses on Beckett Farm, the place to which Fiona was evacuated and which in subsequent years has become the centre of her attention despite being married to an academic and living in Scarborough itself. Gradually the story of what happened during and after the war to ‘the other child’ is revealed and the series of events set in motion on a wartime London railway station is unravelled but not before further damage is done to other characters both physically and mentally. There are no ‘whole’ individuals in this book.
I had a number of problems with this novel. I found it absorbing in as much as I wanted to know how hints about one particular character were going to play out when it came to the denouement; they didn’t. It wasn’t so much that they were a red herring as that they were simply never explained and if they weren’t going to be explained what were they doing there?
I also found it difficult to like any of the characters. It is true that most of them had been damaged in one way or another by the fallout from the wartime experiences of Fiona and the others at Beckett Farm, but even those who had nothing to do with that were hard to connect with. This included Detective Inspector Valerie Almond, who has a rather a peripheral role in the story. If this was meant to be a police procedural it failed, not only because of the lack of focus on the police, but also because Ms Link hadn’t done enough research about British police procedure. If you’re going to set your novel in another country it would help if you found out the facts first. The denouement could not actually have happened here.
In addition to qualms about the story itself, there are also problems with the translation. Within the first few pages I was checking back to make sure that I had read carefully enough because a character who has been offered a lift (a key point in the plot line) was then said to have ‘driven’ into town. I presume the German was a more generalised verb, such as the equivalent of ‘travelled’ which then got translated in a way which negated a central moment in the book. And were sections of the original in first person? There are several occasions when ‘I’ is used in respect of a character when it has otherwise been ‘she’. A good editor should have picked these things up.
However, I did feel she got the setting right. Ms Link may not know police procedure but she does know Scarborough. It’s some years since I actually lived there, but she has caught the atmosphere precisely. I could very easily have packed my bags and taken off on the first train – nostalgia doesn’t do justice to the feelings she evoked. Perhaps that’s why I persevered. Whether I would read any of her other books were they to be translated, I’m not so sure.