Picador published this awesome list of the best short story collections of 2016, and one of the collections that piqued my interest is the first one on the list: Legoland by Gerard Woodward. Truth be told, it’s really because my kid is currently into Lego, and although I knew that chances of this book being remotely connected to building bricks would be close to nil, I decided to read a story off the work, anyway. Which brings me to The Family Whistle.
The story is about a man, Wilhelm, who returns home from the war to his apartment in Germany, expecting to find and continue the life he had left behind before the war took over. Upon his return, however, his wife Florian refuses to even let him in the house, as it had already been years since a man who claimed he was Wilhelm had already taken his place.
It had been a good day for Florian. She had had some success in the shops, being among the first in the queue when she heard that there was some real coffee for sale in Faber’s, and had managed to buy half a kilo of arabica. Then she had found some white silk stockings in Schmidt’s, and didn’t even have to queue for them. On her way back, she had dropped quickly into her husband’s bar on the Promenadeplatz, and had shown him, in a furtive moment while she sat at a table chatting with his craggy manageress Myra, the stockings, and he had given her a quick, appreciative kiss, promising he would bring home something good when they closed that afternoon. But then he always did, even if it was a single sweet pastry left over from the day, or one slice of black ham. By means of such little luxuries they felt richer than they had ever been before the war, even though, by any accepted standards, they were far poorer.
The first paragraph is very promising. The post-war scene is all too familiar: people slowly but surely getting back on track, the increase in supplies, a generally somber but – in a way – satisfied atmosphere. Later, the narrative would describe a content and happy Florian, a wife who is yet to be disabused from the fact that the man she has accepted back into her life as her husband is not who he claims to be.
‘You don’t understand, whoever you are.’ Florian had raised her voice, was almost shouting. ‘My husband was returned to me in 1946. Less than a year after the war ended. We have been living happily together for more than three years. Wilhelm saw me through the darkest days of those terrible winters. Now he works, he is supporting us. You, whoever you are, you are not my husband.’
Another long silence.
‘What are you talking about, Florian? I am your husband. Your husband is standing here now, locked out of his own home.’
The story is very compelling. Although the reader already knows the premise that there are two Wilhelms in the story – the real one and the impostor – the identity of the true Wilhelm remains a mystery. How are we to know that the first Wilhelm is not the real one, and that the second one who turns up at Florian’s doorstep is not the impostor? How will Florian resolve the matter? Will there be a confrontation between the two men? How is the story going to end?
The build-up was so fast and engaging that when I finally came to the end, I was disappointed. That was it? I don’t know but I expected more – something more exciting, more dramatic? I don’t know what, exactly, but it wasn’t that ending. It was a tad disappointing.
Read the story here and let me know what you think.
From “Legoland” by Gerard Woodward