Martin Fletcher may already be familiar to you from his long career as a television news correspondent. Or you may recall that Fletcher is the author of two books of nonfiction: “Breaking News” (2008) and “Walking Israel” (2010), which won the National Jewish Book Award. Last month saw the release of “The List” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, $25.99), marking Fletcher’s entry into the ranks of professional novelists, too.
The title refers to a list maintained by one of the novel’s central characters, Georg Fleischer. Georg and his wife, Edith, are Jewish refugees from Austria who were fortunate enough to reach the United Kingdom before wartime closed that route to others. As the war ends and news filters back about the fate of their respective family members, Georg records his findings on a list. Sadly, most of his notations are strikethroughs: “One by one he crossed them out when the phone call came, or when they found the names on a Red Cross list, or when news, definite news, came from friends on the Continent.”
One exception to this grim rule: Edith’s cousin, Anna, who arrives in London in October 1945. Edith and Georg—as well as the other refugees with whom they spend much of their time—fairly brim with questions for her. But Anna isn’t ready to speak of what she has endured. “If Anna was haunted by what she knew, Edith was tormented by what she didn’t know,” Fletcher writes, summarizing one of the differences between the concentration-camp survivor and the refugee whose loved ones had vanished into the poisonous Nazi ether without the proverbial trace.
Alas, even in England—even after the war—there is no rest for these weary ones. Much of the novel focuses on the prejudice that Jewish refugees and survivors encountered in postwar Britain. Even if the concept of British anti-Semitism isn’t exactly new to you, you’re likely to be surprised by the swiftness and intensity with which it metastasized after the war ended. “It’s becoming more like Vienna every day,” Georg reflects, and you may be inclined to agree. Incorporating text from actual petitions and speeches, Fletcher reveals the angry calls and campaigns for “the prompt repatriation of the thousands of Austrian and German refugees who have taken up refugees who have taken up residence here.” (He incorporates as well actual pro-Jewish responses that helped quash them.)
At first juxtaposed beside the tale of Georg, Edith, and Anna—but then increasingly intertwined with it—is another plotline. Here, and with equally scrupulous attention to the historical record, Fletcher delves into events and conflicts associated with Mandate Palestine. With this focus, we are reminded of the immediate backdrop to the establishment of the State of Israel: British rule, internecine conflict among the Jewish fighters who resisted it, and the plight of Holocaust survivors who longed to start their lives anew in this dangerous but precious land.
Indeed, the novel is also about rebirth and renewal, symbolized most obviously in Edith’s pregnancy. Seven weeks along when the book opens, Edith carries within her the hopes of all within her refugee circle. Everyone is eager for the birth, which occurs just before the book ends. Also new by then is the Fleischer surname, which is reinvented as—yes—Fletcher.
In the author’s note that follows the text of the novel, Martin Fletcher indicates that his parents, who were indeed named Edith and George, were Jewish refugees from Austria who inhabited the same London street—Goldhurst Terrace—as his characters. “They lived through the events described, but this is not their story.” Perhaps one of the book’s most significant accomplishments is that we can easily believe it to be someone’s story, even if it wasn’t the senior Fletchers’.
Erika Dreifus is the author of a short-story collection, “Quiet Americans,” which is inspired largely by the experiences of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. www.erikadreifus.com.