A Palace of Strangers by Sam Youd.
The SYLE Press 2019 (1954)
When I have read novels chronicling family life over years, over generations, I think the thing I have most admired has been the way the incidents were set, in time. It is not until one rises to tell such a story that one realizes the art involved — the art, and the artifice. For events do not fall out as conveniently as one would like.‘A Palace of Strangers’ Part Two, Chapter V
Hinted at by its quote from the prophet Isaiah in the title, A Palace of Strangers explores the disconnect between two of the Abrahamic religions as it affects one particular family, the Rosenbaums. But there are other disconnects too, between siblings and between cultures during times of piece as well as war. And there are those who inhabit a No Man’s Land — agnostics and atheists, and second generation immigrants — who find neutrality is often no different from being regarded as in opposition.
Though it covers barely a half century Sam Youd’s family saga is intense, absorbing and believable, all the more impressive for its apparently accurate portrayal of religious cultures — Catholicism and Judaism — which he wasn’t himself a part of. Though at times the author’s and the narrator’s lives may have overlapped I didn’t get a sense of the latter merely being a mouthpiece of the former; in fact I was largely unaware of the ‘art and artifice’ that Youd has his narrator admire in real memoir writing.
Isaak and Benjamin Rosenbaum are brothers, but when Benno moves from Berlin to Liverpool he consciously abandons both his German language and his Jewish religion. In fact he goes one further and marries Mary who’s both Irish and Catholic (if only nominally) and though he’s interned during the Great War he emerges determined to be as English as he can: his little nuclear family — wife and two children, Anna and David — are to adopt the surname Rose. However, as he admits,
“It is not so easy to be English as it is to be German. In Germany you need only learn the rules. It is hard, in England, to find out what the rules are.”Part One, Chapter IV
This is a leitmotif which will be played over and over again as David will discover, through his school days, on a visit to Germany just as Hitler comes to power, during the war and in peacetime, and in his personal life: you may think you’re playing by the rules but there will always be those who will wrongfoot you.
Benno’s brother Isaak on a visit to England in 1921 is shocked to discover Benno is no longer practising or believing, but then becomes entranced by the singing of Mary’s longtime friend Jinny O’Neill. To everyone’s surprise Isaak marries her the next year in St Jude’s Catholic Church before taking her off to Germany. They have four children — Patrick, Marianne, Gunhild (or Hilda) and Siegfried — who are all raised as Catholics. This, as we know, will matter not a jot to the Nazis a few years later; though David tries to be even-handed and fair when it comes to ordinary people, whether they’re Jewish, say, or German, he knows reality can be perverse: “The point,” he tells Jinny, “isn’t what they are. It’s what people think they are. That’s what counts.”
But one mustn’t think of this just as a novel about identity issues: I was caught up with David’s relationships with not only his parents as he grew up but also his sister Anna, and later with his German cousin Hilda; then during the war there is a fellow officer called Poley, not trusted by other officers, who later joins the estate agency which David sets up in Croydon after being demobbed. We meet these and many others in the years between 1921 and 1953, all of whom help to determine the direction David’s life goes though he’s rarely aware of exactly how.
In the choice of friends, the illusion of free will is strong. Some we seem to reject and others to claim, and the impression is built up in our minds that these men and women are the ones we have picked out from the vast unfriendly world. But in fact we neither select them, nor are selected by them. We are thrown in with them and, accommodating outselves to our condition, choose what has already been allotted to us.Part One, Chapter 3
That sense of allotment is strong in these pages. It’s not as if David doesn’t have agency but time and again he appears to go with the flow, a bark tossed on the oceans of fate. But, as his father tells him, at least he’s not lonely: “You have a softness, and with that you are not lonely. The lonely are the hard ones. […] The hard ones, the lonely ones, are chipped and broken.”
Though the author was neither Jewish or Catholic he picks up on the confusion that can arise from those who have a foot in both camps but are in fact in neither. The confusion is not just present for those in that position but also for those who see themselves as belonging to just one camp: unable to appreciate that diversity is a positive they can fall prey to suspicion, fear and hatred, particularly in the form of superstitions and reinforcement of stereotypes. David comes up against that paradox when he helps liberate a concentration camp, when a colleague openly displays his prejudices, and when relations try to forge new identities for themselves with varied degrees of success.
In a way the author had feet, as it were, in several camps: he had different pseudonyms when writing in other genres (John Christopher for science fiction, as an example). His surname too suggests alternate identities: does Youd, a name originating across Cheshire, Lancashire and Flintshire, signify descent from Vikings settling in the Wirral, or does it come from Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution in the 17th century? The devotion of the latter to St Jude is suggested as leading to the Dutch pronunciation of the name being rendered as Youd. Whether Sam Youd was aware of any of this I don’t know, but I note that the Liverpool church where Isaak and Jinny are married is identified as St Jude’s.
On whatever level one engages with this novel one thing strikes me: the author is well able to pen a story that is absorbing as well as reflecting real lives. If the opening seems plodding then I think that’s deliberate: we are lulled into observing a family and their friends surviving in a provincial city, getting to know them and learning their relationships until we realise that there is a wider world out there which will affect all and sundry whether they like it or not. Youd symbolises this beautifully in the way he bookends the novel with a journey by ship, first with Isaak travelling from Hamburg to the port of Liverpool, and then at the end with David and his disturbed sister about to disembark from the Mersey ferry after a day trip to the Wirral.