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A Book A Week: Nowhere in Africa by Stefanie Zweig


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Stefanie Zweig's Nowhere in Africa was good to read right after When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant. Both books describe the experience of moving to another country in the 1940s, including the culture shock, language difficulties, and divided loyalties that the experience evokes. However, unlike Evelyn (from When I Lived in Modern Times), who moves from Britain to Israel after the war, the family in Nowhere in Africa leaves Germany in the late 1930s for Kenya.

There Walter, who was a lawyer in Germany, finds work as a manager on an isolated farm outside Nairobi, a job for which he is ill-suited and untrained. While he and his wife, Jettel, are miserable, their daughter Regina flourishes. The novel is told from Regina's point of view, and she is a charming girl who forms strong bonds with the Kikuyu workers and loves the African landscape. Eventually Walter is drafted into the British forces in Kenya, allowing Jettel to move with Regina to Nairobi.

Kenya was a British colony in the 1940s, and the Nairobi expats are baffled by, and not terribly welcoming to, the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany. Walter and Jettel, who were assimilated affluent Jews in Germany, hate their outsider status and want nothing more than to return to Germany. Their faith in the average German (as opposed to the Nazis) is unwavering, and they live for the end of the war when they can return to Breslau.

I've read a lot of books about immigrants to the U.S. but hardly any about newcomers trying to fit into British culture. The experiences seem very different. Much is made in this book about the family's strange, unpronounceable name, Redlich -- a name that would hardly be remarked upon in the U.S. I wonder if the Redlich family would have felt so eager to return to Germany if they had emigrated to the U.S. instead of Kenya. Did people who came to the U.S. have an easier time fitting in than those who went elsewhere? By the 1940s the U.S. population contained vast numbers of immigrants from Europe, so the Redlich family might not have felt so alien.

Nowhere in Africa was made into a popular movie in Germany, and in 2001 it won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. I watched the trailer on IMDb, and it looks good. Zweig also wrote a sequel called Somewhere in Germany, which I plan to read soon.


Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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