Restitution by Maureen Duffy


by Maureen Duffy
(Fourth Estate £15.99)

The most important intellectual advances of our age are taking place in the field of biology.   With the increasing awareness of the influence of our genes on every aspect of our lives has come the prospect of a predeterminism as rigorous as Calvin’s. Like characters in a novel, we would appear to be acting of our own free will when, in fact, we are subject to a preordained plan.

This makes a novel which deals with questions of genes and heredity of particular interest. Fiction is the ideal form in which to explore these issues – precisely because of the conflict of freedom and determinism at its heart.  Maureen Duffy’s Restitution rises fully to the challenge.

Restitution is neither an easy book nor a modish one. It is not narrated by a shopping-trolley nor set among Ecstasy-popping, glue-sniffing youth. It is, rather, a deeply moral work which examines the nature of identity, history, country and the basis on which we live our lives. What’s more, it is beautifully written and as exciting as a thriller.

The novel is comprised of three strands. The most significant concerns Betony Falk, a young photographic stylist, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father died while she was at school.  She was brought up by the grandmother (Gran Bet) after whom she was named. Her need to discover the truth about her parents – which Gran Bet has always been reluctant to discuss – provides the motor of the book.

Both the other strands are first-person narratives. One is addressed to Betony by Gil, a young dancer who answers her advertisement for a flat-mate, having recognised the name as that of his great-grandmother’s employer during the war. The other is addressed to the dead Minna, a victim of the Holocaust, by her German husband, Anton von Falk.

The thematic connection between Betony, Gil and Anton is that of lost relatives; the narrative connection leads to the climax of the book.  Betony has always believed that her grandmother’s reticence about her parents sprang from pain. But, having obtained her father’s birth and death certificates and discovered the discrepancy in the official account, she feels herself doubly orphaned.

She persuades Gran Bet to tell her the truth about her origins – the truth which caused her father to commit suicide: that Henry Falk was really Hermann von Falk, the son of a distant German cousin who was brought to England to escape the Nazis, immediately before the war.

The knowledge that she is part-Jewish causes Betony to reassess her whole identity and allows Duffy to question the nature of identity itself. How much truth is there in the old adage, repeated by Gil’s grandmother, that ‘What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.’? Or is Gil himself correct in believing that ‘Now that scientists say we’re all descended from one old black lady in Africa a hundred or three hundred thousand years ago’, individual heredity no longer matters the way that it did.

A deeply sinister counterpart to Betony’s quest for the truth about her ancestors is provided by Anton’s account of the Nazis, who made blood the basis of their racial laws.  The Nazis despised the British as ‘a mongrel nation’, but Duffy makes it clear that it is the traditional tolerance, which finds a home both for the part-Jewish Betony and the part-black Gil, that is the source of our greatest strength.

This is a hugely stimulating and enjoyable novel which is equally authoritative in its portrait of the compromises and confusions of Nazi Germany and of the mores of contemporary London. Unlike many older novelists, Duffy does not condescend to her younger characters but has an exemplary grasp of up-to-the-minute idioms, as in Gil’s street-wise dialect. The characters are as richly complex as the ideas.

Near the end of the book, Betony relates that she became a stylist because it is work which does not require her to delve deeply into life… ‘it doesn’t need you to think except about the surface of things’. Duffy’s impulse is the exact opposite: she is an artist. She delves deeply and rewards her readers with truths.