‘You’re not planning on staying, are you? You are just visiting, aren’t you?’
Saving Francesca Maier
By Claire Wingfield
Published by Off The Press Books
A week after graduating from my English degree, I was browsing Cambridge University careers office when I came across a tiny advert for a publishing traineeship in Germany. A week after that, I moved into the first of three buildings I was to live in during two years in Berlin.
There was an exhilarating freedom to my time in Berlin as a young graduate, and an intensity to each day I explored the city. Soon, I dreamed in German and this splitting of self – the intoxicating possibility of a new identity in a country I had moved to knowing no-one – formed the seed of Saving Francesca Maier. The city provoked transformation and so it seemed natural to pick a central character on the cusp of transformation as a young girl and show the city through her eyes.
On holiday visiting her parents’ old friends in Berlin, Francesca soon finds the strained behaviour of the adults conceals secrets that span decades. She grapples with the German part of her identity – barely thought of until now.
‘Francesca wonders what her mother would be like if she’d stayed here for all those years, as Anja has done. That’s weird, of course, because it means she, Francesca, would have been brought up in Germany, like these children. She’d be a completely different person. The British side of her personality would be the one that would be hidden, the side that would be submerged. How strange that would be. There’s no way the two sides could ever be balanced – unless she spent half of every year in one country, and half in the other. But she’d have to rotate the seasons too – it wouldn’t seem fair to always spend Christmas or summer in the same country, so it would have to go in a strange pattern, a bit like crop rotation. It makes her head spin just to think about it.’
This other world brings Francesca into contact with a set of characters she would never ordinarily have met. It’s a crossing of social divide I’m continuing to explore in the second novel in the series, which sees one of the German characters come to Edinburgh as an au pair, becoming embroiled in the secrets of the family she works for and caught up in their outrageous demands of her.
Saving Francesca Maier is framed by two terror scares. Whilst the characters aren’t directly caught up in an attack, I wanted to explore how living in a volatile world impacts their choices. Berlin is a city to get lost in, another world that is intoxicating in its pull and yet in a moment can transform into something far less hospitable.
Francesca rejects the idea of herself as a tourist although at times she and her family are guilty of treating the people they meet there as disposable – something their status as tourists allows.
‘”I thought you’d like it. Hardly anyone knows about it,” says Antonio, scrambling to stand beside Francesca. “Just something to add to your tourist’s experience. Not many tourists get to see this, though. Not many tourists get to be shown around by me.”
“I’m not just a tourist, Antonio,” Francesca almost yells, surprised at how angry she is. “I am half German, you know. Is that what you think I am? Just a tourist?”
“You’re not planning on staying, are you? You are just visiting, aren’t you?”
It sounds so coolly logical when Antonio says it, and yet Francesca feels so bound up in the strange things she’s found here, and the people she’s met, that she wants to be as far away from Antonio’s words and the feelings they provoke in her as possible. She stalks to the other side of the mound and sits down sullenly with her back to Antonio and her face in her hands. Antonio watches her without moving, lights a cigarette and sits on the grass, looking at the view over East Berlin.
“My house – is over there,” he shouts across at Francesca, pointing towards an indefinable clump of buildings in the distance.
“Your friends’ house – is over there,” he calls, pointing in the opposite direction.
“Templehof airport. You see it? – is over there.”
“The lake at Wannsee – you can’t see it. But it would be over there,” says Antonio, pointing West.
“My uncle’s bar – is over there,” says Antonio, gesturing in the distance.
“Ok, I give in – I want to see what you brought me to see,” says Francesca, wondering how long Antonio could cheerfully troop through the sights with no response from her.
“You sure?” he grins. “There’s more.”
“I’m sure,” says Francesca, pulling Antonio to his feet. He keeps hold of her hand as they move to inspect the entrance to the old bunker, a set of stone stairs descending deep underground.’
Saving Francesca Maier by Claire Wingfield is published by Off The Press Books, priced £7.99