A few weeks ago, I participated in an event at my the Greater Victoria Public Library featuring four authors who had contributed books to its Emerging Local Authors Collection. The four of us exchanged copies of our books. I declared I would read and review the other authors’ books. This is the first of those reviews.
From the book jacket: “The book is a fictional memoir of a child’s life on the Isle-of-Man during the Second World War and focuses on the child’s relationship with a German/Jewish opera singer interned in Ramsey, the child’s home town.”
The Opera Singer by Keith M. Costain is a fascinating look at life on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. The author calls it a “fictional memoir,” but the element of memoir predominates, presenting island life at the time through vivid memories of childhood. Ten-year-old Erik relates anecdotes about family and community, easing the reader into the milieu in which the title character, Austrian opera singer Jakob Weiss, plays a crucial role. Weiss is an “enemy alien” interned on the Isle of Man, along with many others. In fact, the island was turned into a prison camp, with prisoners supplying unpaid labour to local farms as part of the war effort.
This fundamentally grim situation is enlivened with a great many humorous situations and colourful personalities, notably Erik’s choleric-tempered father (referred to as “Pop”), his refined and hard-working mother (called “Ma”), and Bessie, an opinionated neighbour. Many others are skilfully portrayed, always with an eye to their place in the big picture of the island’s society. An example of social class differences is the matter of which houses were requisitioned by the government to house military personnel. Erik’s family’s home is occupied by a shifting population of servicemen and their wives, adding to his mother’s burden of labour, but also contributing additional rations to the household.
At the centre of the book is young Erik’s relationship with Jakob, the interned Austrian who takes the role of an older brother and confidant. As the relationship progresses, Erik must deal with the prejudices of those around him and his own emotions of jealousy, fear and anger. The War is an ever-present threat that impinges on the child’s life in mundane and dramatic ways, from having to lug a gas mask around to watching a Spitfire crash into the bay and learning that its pilot has perished.
This book may be enjoyed in different ways — as a lively account of growing up in a time and setting very different from the present day, as a colourful fragment in the mosaic of 20th century history, and as a richly interesting and detailed look at family and community life as seen by a child on the border between innocence and experience.
Two minor quibbles: it seemed to me there was an absence of commas in quite a few places where they would have been useful; and I was sometimes stopped by phrases such as “asked him and I,” when I expected “asked him and me.” But these are small issues that did not interfere with my enjoyment of this wonderful book. I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys memoir or accounts of civilian life in the Second World War — or anyone who is looking for a warm and engrossing read.
In my 10-star rating system, The Opera Singer gets 9 stars.