Lindsay Hawdon (lhawdon.co.uk)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Jakob is barely eight-years old, and he is running for his life, searching for shelter in a world that has turned against him. It is 1944, and Jakob is a half-gypsy, the oldest child of a Romany father and an English mother, living in German-occupied Europe. High on Hitler’s list of undesirables, Jakob’s gypsy heritage has condemned him to a less-than-human existence that can only end in one way if he stays where he is. So, he must reach Switzerland before he is found, but what chance does an eight-year-old child have against the might of the German army?
Just when you thought you knew about all the atrocities carried out during the Second World War, something else gets unearthed, or someone comes along to examine something in more detail, and uncovers fresh horror and pain. Based on the Romany Holocaust, Lindsay Hawdon’s novel is all the more intense for showing the horror through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy whose survival is, by no means, guaranteed.
Concentrating on the story of Jakob as he tries to evade capture, Hawdon uses flashbacks to supplement this young boy’s story, to show us where he came from, in every sense of the phrase. Flashbacks to the previous year show us Jakob on the run with his mother, brother and sister, as they try to find Jakob’s father, from whom they were separated during a pogrom on the town in which they had settled. During other flashbacks, we find the family all together though, horrifically, they’re wedged into railway cattle cars on their way to God knows what fate. Others show us the childhood of Jakob’s mother, the madness that drove her to the asylum where she met and fell in love with Jakob’s father, a man obsessed with collecting colours, a passion that he passed on to his eldest son.
In the main narrative, Jakob finds himself being helped by an old man named Marcus. Marcus has secret compartments under his stairs that he uses to hide people from the Nazis. He takes Jakob to his home and hides him in the smallest of these compartments, where he lives for months, his only companionship the two Jews in the neighbouring cubbies, and his daily trip outside to get fed and use the toilet. As the story progresses, a plan is hatched, and Jakob begins to receive more food to strengthen him for a run to the Swiss border. In his innocence, much of what is happening passes over Jakob’s head, though there are clues that point the reader to a more realistic conclusion.
There is much beauty between the covers of this stunning novel: the relationship between Jakob and his mother; the stories she tells; and the love that shines from the page not only between Jakob and his family members, but also between Jakob and the man who will become his saviour, Marcus. This beauty is balanced by moments of sheer horror that will leave the reader in tears – what lies at the end of that train journey; Jakob’s realisation as he leaves his cupboard under Marcus’ stairs for the last time. These and other scenes are designed to rip the heart from your chest and wring it dry; the contrast with the beauty, with the wonderful colours that infuse the whole story, makes the horror all the more stark.
Hawdon’s characterisation is masterful, to say the least. In a few short words, she can create a living, breathing human being out of thin air: Jakob and his family; the two men in the cupboards next to Jakob, each with their own stories to tell, their own pain-filled routes to these small spaces of solace and shelter; the German soldier who haunts Jakob’s dreams, one of the most evil characters you’re likely to encounter in fiction, who remains unnamed, and whose conscience makes his violence even more terrifying.
As well as Jakob’s story, this is the story of the Romany people, and the trials they faced during Hitler’s reign. As we learn about the history of Jakob’s family, it becomes clear that little has changed for the gypsy people in the thirty years or so that the novel spans: the pogroms and discrimination are nothing new, though the final outcome may have changed. What Thomas Keneally did for the Jews in Schindler’s Ark, so Lindsay Hawdon does for the Romany in Jakob’s Colours. There are obvious parallels between the two works, but what makes them so similar is the simplicity of their stories, the horror they evoke, and the sympathy that the author has for their subject. Schindler’s Ark won Keneally the Booker Prize; I’ll be very surprised if Jakob’s Colours doesn’t receive similar accolades in the coming year.
Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.