Have you ever been totally absorbed in a book, loving the flawed characters, the taunt pacing, the slightly unsettling plot…and then the author pulls out a whoppingly obvious plot device, so contrived and unbelievable, that you fall out of the story and back to reality with an almost audible wallop?
That’s what happened to me while reading The Other Me, the third novel by English author Saskia Sarginson.
And it really had all been going so well. The novel starts in 1980’s England with Klaudia; a teenager kept cloistered by her religious parents, and in any case, ostracised by her peers anyway, thanks to her demanding and hostile father – who also happens to be the caretaker at her school and the subject of many vitriolic rumours due to his German heritage. Despite the passage of 40 years, he still makes an easy and cruel target, and thus, Klaudia does too.
When she finally makes her escape to university, Klaudia shakes off the suffocating shackles of her childhood, both physically and metaphorically, and blossoms into Eliza, a strong, confident young woman, far removed from her true identity. It’s a lovely retelling of the classic ugly duckling turned beautiful swan narrative. But of course it isn’t to last. Her past and present collide with catastrophic results, and our swan’s wings are not only clipped, but seemingly damaged beyond repair.
It’s here that the novel lost me with that jarring, far-fetched plot clanger. I know why the author did it; she needed a way to start moving the plot forward again after Klaudia/Eliza’s story crisis, but it felt lazy and cheap. I personally think readers deserve better.
When I had picked myself back up from the sudden tumble out of the story, and dusted myself down, I did cautiously delve back in. Because yes, I had come to care about Klaudia-turned-Eliza, but more so, I wanted to learn the fate of the characters in the second story that is interspersed through the novel; one that for me became the more compelling narrative.
Abandoned by their respective mothers, Otto and Ernst are two young German boys growing up unloved and desperate for attention from their foster family. The onset of World War II sees the young foundlings become soldiers who make very different choices that ripple down through the years to reach Klaudia. For me, these chapters of the book were the most enjoyable, while also being the most harrowing. Sarginson does not shy away from exploring the horrors of the Third Reich regime, but uses the two men to show both sides of German wartime sentiment, offsetting Otto’s Nazi fervour and abhorrence, with a story arc for Ernest that shows great humanity, compassion and tenderness.
But again, I felt the author pushed too hard at believability. Because just as Klaudia/Eliza’s past and present collides, so too does Otto and Ernest’s. However, the differences between them as boys, which was more subtly and skilfully handled within a strong storyline, becomes heavy handed and caricature in the present day at the novel’s end, dissolving into a blatant goodie vs baddie, poor man verses rich man battle, and results in a highly improbably “waltzing off into the sunset” resolution for Klaudia that rang hollow in my ears.
There’s no doubt Saskia Sarginson is a gifted writer: she proved that with her debut novel The Twins, and at times this novel hums along with tension and real drama and some of the characters, especially (as mentioned) the young boys in Germany, are both nuanced and fully fleshed out. But I finished the novel wishing the author (and her editors) had reigned herself in, instead of going down obvious and easy paths that stretch reader credibility.
Reviewed by Kelly Bold
The Other Me
by Saskia Sarginson
Published by Piatkus Books