Sometimes it is the people we think we know the best who surprise us the most.
1986, London: Klaudia is about to start high school. She’s embarrassed by her German father—he’s the janitor at her school, he has a funny accent and a limp. And when the kids at school taunt her by saying he was a Nazi during the war, she can’t dispute them with confidence. She’s never known exactly what he may or may not have done during the war. It is a period of time no one will ever discuss.
1995, Leeds: Eliza is in love. She has dropped out of university to pursue her passion—dance. But then talented artist Cosmo comes along and soon Eliza realizes that she might have room in her life for two loves. But can she really continue to lie to everyone around her? And why is she so afraid of the truth?
1930s, Germany: Two brothers are trying to fend for themselves during the chaos of the rise of the Third Reich. One brother rallies for the Fuhrer, one holds back. One is seemingly good, one bad. But history seems to tell a completely different story.
All of these characters’ fates will collide in a novel that explores what we are ultimately willing to do for love. Saskia Sarginson hypnotically examines whether our identities are tied to where we’ve come from in a captivating mystery that shows how sometimes history doesn’t tell the true story.
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About the Author
Saskia Sarginson was awarded an M.A. in creative writing after a B.A. in English literature from Cambridge University. Before becoming a full-time author, she was a health and beauty editor on women's magazines, a ghostwriter for the BBC and HarperCollins, and a copywriter and script editor. She lives in south London with her partner and four children. Her first novel, The Twins, was chosen for the Richard&Judy autumn book club 2013 and received outstanding international review coverage.
Read an Excerpt
The Other Me
By Saskia Sarginson
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Saskia Sarginson
All rights reserved.
All through the long drag of summer my stomach knotted and unraveled when I thought about what was going to happen in September. I'd circled the date on the calendar in red felt-tip with pink stars shooting out over the surrounding days. Inside the scrawl of rose and scarlet it said: Tuesday 3rd. Klaudia starts at Kelwood High School.
I've often walked past the big brick building on Mercers Road, pausing to glance at crowds of pupils in green and gray, watching them spill out of the gates, arm in arm, chatting and laughing. I used to wonder what they were saying, what it was that made them laugh. Now I'll find out, because it's going to be me in that uniform, skipping down the steps, my elbow linked with a friend's.
I've been taught at home. Mum and I at the kitchen table with a pile of exercise books, working our way through the syllabus, learning things by rote so that I could repeat them to my father when he came home from work.
I'm worried that not going to school has made me different. Perhaps it's even more strange that I'm an only child, or that my parents are as old as grandparents. I don't know, because I haven't learned any of the rules. Mum says I just have to be myself. I'm sure it's more complicated than that.
There's only the three of us at home: me, Mum and Dad. Well, four of us, if you count Jesus. Nothing ever actually happens at our house. Nothing ever changes. Reflections flicker inside surfaces and windows sparkle; the three cushions propped on the velveteen sofa don't move out of position, and the pictures on the walls are never wonky, especially the framed tapestry in the living room that reads, All may be saved to the utter most. My father checks its alignment every morning, squinting one eye and standing back to read the needlepoint lettering as if he doesn't know it, and a hundred other lines of scripture, off by heart.
Wooden ornaments jostle for space on the mantelpiece and dresser: the twelve apostles and Jesus in different poses, hand raised or holding a basket of fish, all staring out with blind eyes, frozen in place, as if the witch from Narnia has been on the rampage. Even these don't have a speck of dust on them. Each one is lifted and re-positioned after a thorough polish. Hunting dirt is something my mother does, feather duster in hand, the vacuum cleaner like a faithful pet, rolling from room to room with its long nose snuffling into corners.
I wish we could have a real pet. "We don't live on a farm, Klaudia," my father told me when I asked, "and it would add to your mother's burdens." My mother sighed, "It's a shame, cariad, but a cat would kill the birds." Mum feeds the robins, sparrows and thrushes that live in our garden with bits of bacon fat and the broken skulls of coconuts. My father made a bird table for her and fixed it on a branch of the apple tree. He likes to make things from wood. We're running out of places to put the ornaments, and there are a lot of characters in the Bible still to go. He has a shed in the garden where he keeps his tools and does his carving.
That's the other thing about starting school that worries me. My father. Otto Meyer. He works there. That's embarrassing. He is embarrassing. He's like Goliath, always too big for any room. And of course there's his heavy German accent. How can he still talk like that when he's lived in England for years and years? But maybe nobody will know or care that he's my dad. I'll make friends. Kids my own age. I want to take a look inside their homes and see how they live and what they eat and what they watch on TV. There is a whole world outside these pebble-dashed walls, beyond our straight suburban street, the Guptas' local store, the Methodist chapel and the Texaco garage blinking its orange lights on the main road.
* * *
The teacher, Mrs. Jones, is writing on the blackboard with chalk. I bend low over the desk and try to keep up with copying. I can feel the good-luck postcard that Mum gave me this morning crumpled in my pocket. Its edges press against my skin through the silky lining.
Most of the kids already seem to know each other. Lots of them must have gone to the same primary school. That hadn't occurred to me. I thought we'd all be new. After I'd found a spare desk, I perched on the edge of my chair wondering how to join in with one of the conversations. A girl stopped by my desk.
"Hello. I'm Lesley." She put her head on one side. "Have you just moved here?"
"Oh, no," I gabbled, "I've lived here for my whole life. Just around the corner."
She'd curled her lip. "Well, how come I've never seen you?"
"I didn't go to school. My mum taught me. At home," I said quickly.
The way she looked at me — it was as if I was a purple-spotted lemur in the zoo. I shouldn't have said anything. I knew it was wrong.
The collar of my white shirt is rubbing my neck. I wish I could rip off my top button. Thick gray socks make my knees itch. At the next desk a girl called Amber is frowning at the board. She has a bobble nose, curly black hair and blue eyes. Not like an Amber at all. She looks like Snow White. Her lips are blood-red as if she's bitten them. Perhaps she has. Perhaps she's as scared as me.
She glances across under sooty lashes and grins. I catch my breath. I want to be friends with her more than anything.
Mrs. Jones's chalk goes on scratching numbers. A dry, pale scent mixes with a faint tang of sweat and rubber, and the warm exhalations of a roomful of eleven-year-olds. I copy the numbers as carefully as I can, but they jumble up on the page, making no sense. Dad says that I'm lazy at math. He says I don't try hard enough.
Mrs. Jones has stopped writing to stare at us. Her cheeks have burning scarlet patches as if she's boiling hot or really embarrassed. But I don't think she can be either. She rakes her nails against her scalp, fingers disappearing inside short curls. Her navy cardigan is peppered with bits of dead skin. The eyes behind her spectacles search around the room. She taps one finger on her chin. She's looking for someone to ask. I drop my forehead so low it almost touches the wooden desk, hunching up, fixing on the blur of numbers on my paper, praying dear God, dear God, don't let her pick me.
Then lots of things happen at once. There's a soft thump, and the high-pitched sound of breaking glass. A missile has flown clean through the window on the other side of the room, making a jagged hole. Cracks run across the remaining panes in zig-zag lines. Someone screams. A cricket ball bounces and rolls slowly, coming to rest under my desk. There's broken glass all over the floor under the window. Bits gleam and sparkle.
My whole life I've been saying prayers, but they've never been answered before. I sit up in surprise, fighting to control my face, wanting to laugh at the miracle. Mrs. Jones has her hand clamped over her mouth. Amber and I exchange triumphant looks.
Kids have jumped out of their seats. There is an excited chatter. Mrs. Jones has recovered enough to shout, "Sit down — everyone keep calm and sit down." Another teacher comes in. He must have heard the noise. After a hurried chat, he leaves with a frown creasing his face.
"Whoever hit that ball is going to be in dead trouble," Amber whispers to me, eyes round as she makes a slicing motion across her throat.
"I know." I nod. "Look." I peer at the ball. "Under my desk."
She stretches out her leg to push it with her toe; then she glances at me and giggles. I'm so happy that I want to grab her hand and squeeze it tight. I want to ask her to be my best friend right now. Do people do that? I don't know how to behave. I don't know how to have a friend.
"Is everyone all right? No cuts or injuries?" Mrs. Jones is saying. "We'll have this mess cleared up in no time."
The door opens. We turn expectantly, and I catch my breath. I can feel the class watching my father stalking to the front, a broom grasped in one huge fist and a dustpan in the other. I look away from his towering shape, buttoned into a brown cotton coat. But I see his profile etched against the inside of my lids: the sharp line of his nose, the downward pull of his mouth.
I grip the edge of the desk. How weird is it that my father is the caretaker? What will Amber think?
I can hear the swish of bristles and the tinkle and scrape of glass fragments being swept into the plastic pan. I clench my teeth.
"See him?" Amber nudges me. "He's German."
I swallow, clearing my throat, trying to work out how to reply.
She hisses, "My sister says he's a Nazi. He gassed the Jews."
The desk tilts under me and I curl my toes inside my shoes to stop the sudden lurch in my belly. She puts her finger under her nose, straight across her top lip like a mustache, and winks at me. I examine my hands clamped against the desk: white speckles on my nails, pink, ragged skin around them with bits that shred and sting.
"Well, I think that will do. Thank you," Mrs. Jones is saying.
At the edge of sight, I see him moving away. He's stuck a piece of cardboard over the open wound of the window. He's going to leave. I squeeze my knees together, dropping my chin and rounding my shoulders to fold myself up. Don't look. Don't make eye contact. Underneath everything the word "Nazi" is repeating inside my head. But Nazis are heel-clicking men in scary uniforms, with polished black boots, scars cutting across their smooth monster faces.
I hear the scrape of heavy footsteps passing, and then the door closes quietly. He's gone. I draw a deep breath and dare to raise my eyes. The class is back to normal: muttering, scratching heads, scribbling in exercise books. Nobody is looking at me. Mrs. Jones is writing on the board again. Amber makes a funny face for my benefit, miming a yawn.
My father was in the war. I'd never thought what that meant before. I know nothing about it, except that we won, and the Nazis killed the Jews. Of course my father had nothing to do with that. My insides start to crack like the glass in the window frame. He doesn't talk about the past. I put my thumb between my teeth and bite. He's just my dad: tall and serious with a funny accent. And ordinary. He can't be part of history.
The thing to do, I decide, is to keep quiet. Maybe nobody will think to connect us; it doesn't have to mean we're related, just because we have the same surname. I'll avoid him at school. I won't tell anyone.
I tilt my chin up and stretch my lips, grinning for Amber. She pats her opened mouth, pretending to yawn again, and I copy her, rolling my eyes at the numbers Mrs. Jones is inscribing onto the board.
* * *
The thing about September that I'd failed to mark on the calendar, but of course Mum had in her neat script, is that it's the beginning of the Methodist year. So we're sitting in our usual places in the second row of the church, listening to the long-winded Covenant Service. The lay preacher proclaims, "We are here to celebrate God's gracious offer to Israel that I will be their God and they shall be my people."
In my head I'm offering God my own prayer of thanks, because He's given me what I've always wanted, even more than a pet: my own best friend. Amber is the most popular girl in my class, and she's chosen me. Every day since that first one, I've been impatient to get to school, my chest tightening with nervy excitement as I walk through the gates, waiting for Amber to run over and link her arm with mine. Sometimes I even forget that I have anything to hide.
My father breathes heavily through his mouth. He's placed his palms on his knees, leaning forward as if he's about to spring to his feet and take part in a race. My mother is dressed in her best clothes, hands linked in her lap. Both of them keep their eyes on Mr. Lewis in his gray suit as he talks about Christian perfection.
I wish we could have been Baptists. Like those African women wrapped in swathes of silver fabric, heads bound in brilliant turbans, clapping as if they're at a party. Or Catholics, with candles and blood-spurting statues, and incense-clouded air, altar boys in white lace singing like angels. But if I could choose any religion, I'd choose Hinduism — I like the sound of gods with elephant heads and sinuous ladies with multiple arms, the way they can change shapes and grant wishes. Lots of our neighbors are Hindu. The Choppras and the Guptas. My father says it's a shame that they are heathens. Mum says, "It's not for us to judge, Otto. With God's grace, we know that salvation is possible for everyone."
Aseema Choppra is in the year above me at school. On my first day she smiled at me as we passed each other on the stairs, and I turned to watch her walking away with her friends, her long black plait hugging the curve of her spine.
I fix my eyes on the plain wooden cross that hangs behind the preacher's head, trying to concentrate. He pauses to push a slick of hair back into place across his bald spot, then rubs his palm on his trousers, a fleeting expression of distaste on his face. Brylcreem, I bet. It's really sticky. Dad keeps a pot of it on the bathroom shelf. My father insists on cleanliness, seeing as it's so close to godliness. He gleams from top to toe. This morning I'd woken to find my shoes polished and placed outside my bedroom. My father cleans all our shoes, setting them out on sheets of newspaper and rolling up his sleeves, spitting and rubbing. He says you can tell a lot about a man from what he's wearing on his feet.
Dad also says that to follow Jesus Christ we need discipline. We should be fit and ready for the challenge He will set us. My father does his morning exercises in the garden. Whatever the weather, he's out there going through the same jerks and jumps: bending and straightening, touching his toes and dropping down to do push-ups. Watching him in his vest and rugby shorts, shoulders heaving at the timid air, his hair sweat-darkened, and the light catching his pale, bunched calves, he looks like a warrior in God's army.
My father can be frightening. But I've never thought of him as being someone to make fun of. Not until I saw the boys at school marching behind him, making silent salutes, their fingers under their noses, arms like pistons punching the air. Sieg heil.
* * *
"Klaudia, I notice that you don't speak to me at school," my father said today. "Is there a problem?"
I wrapped one leg around the other and gazed at a spot just behind him. "No."
"Well." He shrugged. "Perhaps you are embarrassed to have a father that is a caretaker. Perhaps you think it's too lowly a profession?"
I shook my head. He was testing me.
"Good, honest work is nothing to be ashamed of." He poked his chin forward, so that I saw the throb of his throat. "We are plain people. But we're giving you the advantages we never had. After everything your mother has done for you, you must work hard, help pay her back for all the sacrifices she's made." His disappointment in me pulled the edges of his mouth down. "Your mother is a saint, Klaudia. Neither of us deserves her."
His face transformed at the mention of her name, mouth and eyes turned upwards with delight, his eyes glowing with the same fervent look he gets when he is praying.
But then he frowned again. "A lot of those kids, they have no discipline. No belief. No work ethic. They are foolish. And they get into drugs and so forth." His hairy eyebrows met in the middle, his eyes narrowing into a blue glitter. "I never want to see you behaving like them. Do you hear me?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"It would kill your mother."
He glared at me as if I was already a heroin addict, had already driven my mother into the depths of despair.
* * *
Mum is gesturing for me to stand, the hymn book flopping open in her other hand. The congregation is on its feet, singing "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies." I catch my father's deep, throaty roar. For once his accent is disguised inside music and all I hear is the power of his voice.
My tongue is dry. No sounds come out. My mother holds the book towards me so that I can read. "Pierce the gloom of sin and grief ... scatter all my unbelief." I mouth the words looking down at my shoes, seeing the hazy reflection of myself in their blue-black shine.
Excerpted from The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson. Copyright © 2016 Saskia Sarginson. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: The Lie,
Part Two: The Trap,
Part Three: The Telling,
About the Author,
Also by Saskia Sarginson,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Eliza is a great dancer, she has friends, she has a boyfriend and she's happy. However, Eliza doesn't really exist. Eliza's real name is Klaudia and she's ashamed of her background. She's been bullied because of where she comes from. Her family has secrets and there is a lot Klaudia doesn't know. What will happen when she can no longer live as Eliza and needs to go back home, to the place she doesn't want to return to? Ernst and Otto are brothers, but they aren't particularly close. Ernst is in love with a Jewish girl. It's shortly before the start of the Second World War and he knows she isn't safe. The situation becomes worse ever day and the brothers know they will have to fight. Otto seems to be excited to join the army, he's tougher than Ernst. The brothers have to join to survive, but what will happen to them when they have to leave home for their country? How will the war change their lives, will they ever see each other again? The Other Me is an impressive story. Klaudia is a sweet and talented girl. Her childhood was difficult and my heart ached for the girl who didn't really have a safe place in the world. I kept hoping she'd find someone who'd give her more than she received in her life so far, some much needed care, kindness and happiness. Klaudia is struggling with her family's past. Her father and uncle are German and they had to fight in the war. She's having difficulties with that knowledge, but there's so much she isn't aware of, and Saskia Sarginson describes her issues in a beautiful poignant way. The Other Me gripped me from the start. It's a serious story about a complex family with plenty of heartbreak. Hope balances the sadness and Saskia Sarginson writes about it in such a skillful way that I couldn't stop reading. I had to know what would happen next. The war years and Klaudia's present are equally interesting and they both made me go through an emotional rollercoaster. The Other Me is beautiful compelling read, it's a moving story filled with many surprising twists and turns that will stay with me for a very long time.
The Other Me had a lot of elements I enjoyed: multiple narrators, interesting historical question, complex family dynamics, romance. But it also had aspects that I struggled with: slow building plot, confusing characters (at the beginning). I was hoping I’d like it more than I ended up liking it, but I did enjoy the latter half of the book more than the beginning. Klaudia is the daughter of a German man growing up in England in the 1980s. She attends a school where her father is the custodian, and everyone knows he used to be a Nazi. Klaudia’s father, Otto, never talks about his time in the war, and neither does her mother, so she doesn’t know what to believe. But she endures bullying from her classmates. When she’s old enough to go to university, she leaves her hometown near London to attend school in Leeds. There she reinvents herself as Eliza Bennett (after Elizabeth Bennett of course), an orphan with no ties to Germany or WWII. Her worlds collide midway through the book when tragedy strikes. Interwoven with Klaudia/Eliza’s tale is her uncle, Ernst, story of growing up in Germany before and during the war. Through his eyes we learn the truth about Klaudia’s father. There is also the mysterious element of the man she says she has to kill at the outset of the novel. I really enjoyed Ernst’s chapters, and I loved the idea of wondering what it would be like to be the daughter of a Nazi soldier. The beginning of this book was a little confusing for me. I knew right away that Klaudia and Eliza were the same person, but I was having a hard time keeping the dates straight, and at first I didn’t know who Ernst was. This book was slow moving for me even after I got the characters straight in my mind. I struggle with plots that could be resolved by just telling the truth. I wanted to shake Eliza and make her be honest with her friends in Leeds. Waiting for the inevitable shattering of her facade was hard to do. I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it. http://opinionatedbooklover.com/review-the-other-me-by-saskia-sarginson/
This was a book that I truly couldn't put down. For me, it had all the elements of a strong guilt-ridden character based story. Klaudia oozed so much guilt about her father's past that upon leaving school she changed her name to Eliza to try to get away from it. The story is quite complex going back and forth over two main characters and two main timelines – schooldays and present day Klaudia/Eliza, and the build up to Nazi war years and present day of brothers Ernst and Otto. There is also an extra timeline of Ernst during his march through snowy Russia as a soldier during the war which is the central cause of all the guilt. It's a book full of depth and requires full attention. Klaudia is bullied at school because the other children realise that the German school caretaker, labelled a 'Nazi', is her father. One boy in particular is a nasty piece of work and is really vicious and racist against her. The whole school experience traumatises Klaudia so much that she goes away to dance school while her parents think she is at college, and begins to use the name Eliza. Eliza meets Cosmo and falls in love. Lies upon lies that she can't seem to escape from. I loved the Klaudia/Eliza character but when the book went back in time to Ernst and Otto's childhood I could really feel the background of the story developing. All that happened back then when the boys joined Hitler's Youth is the start of the guilt and complexities a generation later in Klaudia. It's a book with depth, a good few twists, and flawed and damaged characters. One I would certainly recommend.
Multi-narrated mystery novel A multi-narrated mystery novel (they all seem to be multi-narrated at the moment), this book tells the story of Klaudia, Eliza and Ernst. In 1986 London, Klaudia is brought up in a strict Methodist household with a German father who works as a caretaker at her secondary school. Eliza is a dance student in Leeds in 1995. Ernst is a young man in Nazi Germany of the 1930s and 40s. The chapters alternate between the three characters and then between two of them. It is a story of lies and deception, of love and despair. Of course the truth emerges eventually with dire consequences. It is a good read and recommended to those who enjoy a well-written voyage of discovery.