This huge, surprisingly entertaining book is really two books in one: a short biography of the great East German novelist Uwe Johnson—no, me neither—and a much longer history of the Isle of Sheppey at the mouth of the Thames estuary. The two subjects are not as incongruous as they might seem: Johnson spent the last decade of his life effectively in exile on the island, trying to finish the fourth and final volume of his magnum opus Jahrestage. Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cresspahl [Anniversaries. From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl].
As I say, the book is huge. I had no idea it was such a doorstop when I ordered it, having been intrigued by John Mitchinson’s endorsement in the preamble to episode 125 of the excellent Backlisted podcast. When it landed, I must confess I found the prospect of reading such a long book on such obscure subject-matter somewhat daunting. But I ended up thoroughly enjoying it, getting through the 734 pages in only a few days.
If I’m brutally honest, as I read the book, it did feel a bit as if two very different books had been bolted together—although I would have been quite happy reading either. But, with hindsight, I very much enjoyed the strange merging of subjects.
The book is meticulously researched and profusely illustrated, although some of the photographs were way too small for my liking. I dare say they had to be kept small to prevent the book being even thicker. The sections on the history of Sheppey, a former naval town which has fallen on hard times, were surprisingly engaging to this northerner. And Uwe Johnson turns out to be a surprisingly interesting chap, despite the fact I’d never heard of him. (Ah, but will I ever read his magnum opus, I hear you wonder… Well, no I won’t.)
An unusual, enjoyable read.