by Monique Roy
In A Savage Kultur, we meet Ava Goldberg, a Jewish art student studying in England. When her beloved German Grandfather, Karl Engel, dies, he leaves her his art gallery and instructions to find a Van Gogh painting which was looted by the Nazis. Ava reaches back into the past aided by her Grandmother’s memories to try and fulfil Karl’s wish.
A Savage Kultur is definitely a book of two halves. The first is set in 2013/4 and follows Ava as she comes to terms with her Grandfather’s death and ownership of the gallery. Overall, the plot and story behind A Savage Kultur is utterly compelling. Notwithstanding, I found Ava to have an air of entitlement and, consequently was somewhat unlikeable as also was her Mother, Vivienne, who I felt was intentionally one-dimensional but this did make her appear a bit caricatured. Although Ava’s relationship with boyfriend Jonas was intriguing given their backgrounds, I felt once I had completed the novel that retrospectively it was a little superfluous. I think more could have been developed both with him as a character and the past that Ava discovers. Ava studies and lives in England and her parents are also in England but there were a few instances of American English usage which felt quite erroneous in the English setting; but this is a minor gripe as an English reader.
However, the second part of the novel which is mainly set in Munich, 1937 is excellent and provides a far more rounded and developed read. It’s tense, absorbing stuff that is ably carried by the characterisation of Karl Engel as a young man; he is convincing and well-realised. The deterioration of the relationship with his Father and the escape with Gisela and Joseph made for some heart-rending and affecting reading. There is also a contemporary sub-plot involving the son of a SS officer which is interleaved with the 1930s narrative and had the suspenseful, nail-biting feel of a thriller; I really enjoyed this part of the novel and found it hard to put down. I also thought the ending was cleverly realistic which was refreshing.
A Savage Kultur is a thought-provoking, ambitious book containing flashes of brilliance. Recommended.