The Other Hoffmann Sister by Ben FergussonThis novel spans a number of years and different locations – taking the reader through 1902 to 1924 and from Africa to Germany. It begins with sisters, Margarete and Ingrid Hoffmann, whose parents buy a farm from the Baron von Ketz and move their children to German Southwest Africa. We hear of events through Ingrid’s point of view, as she copes with the boredom of living in the middle of nowhere – devouring her handful of books and enjoying lessons with the houseboy, Hans Ziegler.
There are ties between the characters in these early years that perpetuate through the novel. Margarete is sent to visit the Von Ketzes and it is gradually understood that she will be betrothed to their son, Emil. However, when there is an uprising of the local Herero people, Ingrid and her family flee. Ingrid spends much time concerned about Hans, who does not meet up with the family, as expected and, indeed, she spends much of this novel questioning events that remain unclear to her. When the family return to Germany, Margarete, who has always been critical of the expectations of her parents, and suffered emotional turmoil and mood swings, finally agrees to marry Emil. However, on the wedding night, and on the eve of the First World War, Margarete vanishes… Ingrid has spent much of her childhood caring for her sister and now her life seems torn apart. This novel follows her attempts to make sense of what happened; both in Africa and to her sister.
One of the reasons I wanted to read this novel because I loved Ben Fergusson’s debut book, “The Spring of Kasper Meier.” This is a very different book, but, although it is a much slower, and less obviously plot driven read, I found that I was very much drawn into it. I liked the character of Ingrid very much and sympathised with her realisation that she is surrounded by secrets. Ingrid’s great love is translating and she takes her work seriously. There are also a good supporting cast of characters; including Ingrid’s intellectual friend, Hannah Mandelbaum, Emil von Ketz and his friend, the Hungarian artist, Leo Horvath. There is also a sweeping historical backdrop – Colonial Africa, World War One and the political, and personal, upheaval afterwards. Having finished this, I think it is a novel worth persevering with, as it is a rewarding read.
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The Other Hoffmann Sister
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The past few years have seen, once again, a growth and movement behind nationalism. That was a time when colonisation was considered normal, a sense of pride was born from expanding empires, when minorities were second-class citizens, illegal or racially profiled in a much more virile, legal and widespread way than today. The novel begins in German South West Africa, a colony from to , introducing two families: the aristocratic Von Ketz family, and the aspirational Hoffmanns. The Hoffmans had relocated to the colony in where they bought a farm from the Von Ketz family. Set in the blistering heat and arid African landscape, the first part of this novel centres on the titular sisters, Margarete and Ingrid, in their adolescence.
Buy The Other Hoffmann Sister by Ben Fergusson (ISBN: ) from Amazon's Review. A fascinating look at racism and snobbery. Broken postwar .
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In , Ingrid Hoffmann's family move her and her sister Margarete to a farm in German Southwest Africa that their father has bought from the aristocrat Baron von Ketz. In the face of casual racism, tensions with local tribes and the family's strange relationship with the von Ketzes, Ingrid worries increasingly for her sister's declining mental health, until a shocking murder forces the family back to Germany. In Germany, Margarete's health improves and she becomes engaged to Emil von Ketz, the older Baron's son. But on her wedding day on the eve of the First World War, Margarete disappears. After the war, in the midst of the revolution that brings down the Kaiser and wipes out the aristocracy that her family has married into, Ingrid returns to the von Ketzes' crumbling estate determined to find out what really happened to her sister.
Though overshadowed by the even greater atrocities that were to come, the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples by German colonial authorities in the early s was as appalling an example of organised brutality and naked racism as any the century threw up. A rebellion against exploitative rule in what is now Namibia led to thousands being forced into the desert to die; others were herded into concentration camps and experimented upon while still alive. It is a story that deserves to be more widely known. But tackling such subjects head-on in a historical novel runs the risk of it becoming either a salacious catalogue of tragedy or a finger-wagging, hindsight-influenced sermon. Ben Fergusson, whose debut novel The Spring of Kasper Meier won the Betty Trask award and prompted comparisons to Graham Greene, has taken a subtler approach, reflecting the episode and its aftermath through its impact on a family of German settlers. His principal focus is Ingrid Hoffman, a curious year-old who feels protective towards her impulsive and highly strung older sister Margarete.