Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees – in the aftermath of war, food is the code
After the Second World War finished, the state of much of mainland Europe was still confused. Refugees or “displaced persons” moved across borders of former countries, Germany was divided into zones between the victorious forces, but squabbles about a new world order were dominating any attempt to rebuild cities. Into this world arrives Edith Graham who has spent the war teaching at a girls’ school, but now wants to do her bit in sorting out schools in the British zone. That would be a sufficient challenge, but her friends want to give her different missions, mainly in terms of discovering those convinced Nazis who are hiding in the ruins of a society. She has her own agenda, looking for her ex lover. While she is given official unofficial contacts, in order to transmit information to a friend she comes up with an unusual idea: a code based on a specific cookery book, hidden in innocent seeming recipes. The book brilliantly describes her feelings on arriving in Germany, her shock at the state of the buildings and plight of the people, and her confusion at who she can truly trust. This is an excellent testament to the spirit of those who wanted to help rebuild a world, but also a strong examination of some of the urge to punish those who did such appalling things in the name of a terrifying ideology and aggressive self interest. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review such a powerful historical novel of a remarkable time in Germany.
Edith is an excellent German speaker who is resentful of her war experience limited to teaching girls and caring for her widowed mother. When she gets the opportunity to go to Germany with the education corp, she is keen to go, if only for a belated chance to make a difference. However, it seems that she is required to do more, to discover the fate of some who disappeared, whether friends or enemies. Not that any of it is straightforward, as she is aware some of those placing these demands have their own agendas. Having begun a second career writing recipes and cooking hints under an assumed name, she decides to use her keen observation of food to convey secrets, impressions and information to a friend, Dori, in letters that may well be censored. Her arrival in the British zone shows her the inequalities of the British who have too much food, power and influence, in contrast to the surviving victims of a war that has displaced huge numbers of people who struggle to find shelter and scraps of food. Her compassion for others, especially the children, reveals that so many have their own story of terrible suffering, and she tries to change some situations. She discovers secrets, dangers, physical attraction, threats and so much more in cities forever transformed by recent events. She finds friends, allies and suspicious individuals, and it is so difficult to work out who, if anyone she can trust. Meanwhile, she comments on the food, the menus, the terrible and fascinating fare presented to her and others in a place of famine and plenty.
This is an elegantly written book of harsh realities but also genuine understanding of people in extreme circumstances. It conveys a terrific sense of place, of cold, of the ruins in which people scrape a living almost alongside those who live and work in enormous buildings. Rees is so skilled at drawing out characters in extremes of cruelty, passion and other emotions that it is a fascinating book, even with its touching testimonies of outrages. She creates images of such powerful scenes that are haunting and memorable. I recommend this book to all those who are interested in the aftermath of war, the experience of people left to cope, and the physical and mental scars of terrible events. By focusing on Edith, the reader is given a real insight into the nearly impossible to describe situation through the eyes of a sympathetic woman.
I really enjoyed this book, if only because it shows such a human response to terrible situations. Compared with some of the books I read and review on this blog, it is a tough read, but so powerful.