Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 1999

Restitution, by Maureen Duffy

reviewed by Jim Herrick

Maureen Duffy, President of GALHA, is a novelist with a strong sense of place and time – and, above all, the people that inhabit them. In Restitution, she captures the two cities London and Berlin with her usual accuracy. The past is ever present with the main three central characters having an important relationship with the past. Betony is a young designer with questions about who were her grandparents; Gill is a young, gay, black, dancer about whose past there are questions; and Anton is an old man, writing to his presumed dead wife on a laptop computer, wondering what happened to their child.

The skill with which these three people, these three stories, are woven together is consummate. Duffy is concerned with our search for identity and the specific voice of individuality is well presented in the separate voices of the three protagonists. Anton, writing on his computer, has the measured stoical voice of a man who has endured much, but yet retains the will to keep going. Gill, portrayed as a personal voice, slips between his original working-class demotic, to an assumed educated voice. Betony, who is described in the third person is given a mixture of vitality and anguish which locate her place and time. You can see that Duffy has been a poet and biographer as well as novelist. Not that the style is consciously ‘poetic’, more that there is a precision of language and the occasional sentence that suddenly shakes you with its aptness: the voice that “drops an octave like a ballerina whose partner has just failed to catch her”. The consciousness of the shape of people’s lives is seen in the portrayal of all the main characters in Restitution.

All the three characters are searching for something in their past. Betony wants to know why her father committed suicide and who her grandfather was. Gill wants to know at what point ‘blackness’ came into his family and how to relate to his estranged father. The German former officer, Anton, wants to know what became of his Jewish wife and their child. Together they progress towards knowledge and reparation and reconciliation. There is a feeling that their integrity and survival depend upon the telling of their stories: Anton reflects on his words on the computer to his presumed dead wife – “and when I’m no longer here to do it we shall both be gone unless someone cares to read this, can conjure it up on the screen from where it lies like all the other lost histories scattered in their secret hiding places in attics and archives, and now depositories on disk”.

As readers of Duffy’s other novels will know, she is a powerful storyteller. I do not wish to reveal some of the surprises in the narrative, but should mention the effectiveness of the depiction of Nazi Germany by an officer married to a Jew, and the vividness of the quest of Betony, through graveyards and record offices, for her past. Also enjoyable is the telling of the charming love affair emerging for Gill at the end of the tale.

Duffy skilfully weaves her sense of how we “remake ourselves” from what we learn: “Don’t we all make ourselves with what we know as much as what we inherit?” And how history goes on “being passed down in the mind and in the blood of millions of people”. I read this novel on a train journey to Belgium and while the war against the Serbs was taking place. This impressive novel could hardly have been more resonant with our need to find a European identity and with a consciousness that “we are all nomads now”. As the awfulness of the Kosovan war crosses our screens, we are yet aware that even there too there must eventually be restitution.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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