In her native Germany, evening-class teacher Brigitte Glaser lived a quiet life, writing regional crime and culinary-themed fiction in her spare time – until, in 2016, her Black Forest-set novel Bühlerhöhe topped the national bestseller lists. And there’s not a poisoned gateau in sight.
Germany, 1952. Reeling from the Second World War, pre- the economic miracle and with the Cold War brewing, the young federal republic is desperately trying to reinvent itself as everybody’s new best friend. Germany’s first post-war chancellor, the conservative Konrad Adenauer, heavily pushes for the ratification of the ‘restitution law’ – payments for Jews who suffered in the Holocaust. The German word for it is Wiedergutmachungsgesetz – literally, ‘make it good again law’. Sounds easy: pass the law, and we’re all good again? Well … not really. Many Jews think financial compensation for the Holocaust would be blood money – no amount of Deutschmarks can ever compensate for the unimaginable scale of the horrors. Many Germans (not known for a sense of irony) see themselves as victims too – and are opposed to the proposed law for that reason. In his determination to see the restitution law passed, Adenauer has made many enemies of varying ideologies across the political spectrum and beyond the borders of Germany, and he is out on a limb: if anything should happen to him, the law would be dead in the water. So far, so historical background. The fact that Adenauer did not die until 1967 and the restitution law was passed safely – if only just, and with the help of the left-leaning opposition party – somehow does not seem to distract from the novel’s main conceit of shadowy figures following him around, hedging cunning plans to either assassinate or to protect him.
Glaser brings a colourful mix of international secret agents, war profiteers, ideologists with hidden agendas, femme fatales, country bumpkins, and an assortment of – as ultimately revealed – innocent bystanders, to the Hotel Bühlerhöhe, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Rhine valley. In the summer of ’52, this motley crew has been attracted to the heights of the Black Forest by one high-profile vacationer: Adenauer. It’s an ‘accident’ waiting to happen. But, apart from the chancellor, who is who? That’s what we are waiting to discover. And while we are waiting, we are presented with a seemingly never-ending series of unlikely coincidences, red herrings, pointlessly padded out flashbacks and the odd reference to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Bracing yourself for a Manderley-type showdown? No need – randomness rules.
The real protagonist of the novel is the eponymous manor house Bühlerhöhe. Intended as a home for military veterans by an officer’s widow, who found herself at the centre of a divorce scandal, was later ruined by the galloping costs of the building project and eventually committed suicide, the grand house rose to become one of the most exclusive hotels in Europe. Its downhill path began in the early noughties, and eventually its fate was sealed after it played host to the English football team for the Fifa World Cup 2006. In true Borat-style it now belongs to a group of investors from Kazakhstan, its Google Maps status showing as ‘permanently closed’.
So, is Bühlerhöhe worth a read? It is. It deals with a neglected period of history: the tumultuous events leading up to the then controversial restitution law. Although Adenauer was never in real life attacked at Bühlerhöhe, he and the committee that dealt with the introduction of the law were targeted on three different occasions, with one fatality. Events were hushed up at the time and it’s good to see that redressed. Can we put up with the unnecessary sub-plots, the slightly stuffy dialogue, the one-dimensional characters? I say we can. Despite, or maybe even because of all of this, Bühlerhöhe is not too guilty a pleasure. At worst it is a little simple, at best it is an homage to a little-known period of post-war European history, with people going about their business variously repressing or dealing with the past, living the present and building their futures.
If nothing else, enjoy the book for its sense of time and place – close your eyes and you can easily imagine the characters right there, bustling about amongst the Black Forest firs.
Reviewed by Heike Krüsemann
Written by Brigitte Glaser
Published by List (2016)
Heike Krüsemann is a UK-based researcher, writer and translator with an interest in language, culture and education. Find her on Twitter: @Dr_Heike_K
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