Schroder is the second novel I read on my quest to find books with attention-grabbing premises that delivered emotional punches. Unlike The husband’s secret, this isn’t categorised as ‘chick lit’. It has garnered praise from highly-respected authors and been shortlisted for the Folio Prize, because the quality of the writing is so high that it tips over into that nebulous category, literary fiction. (I can’t help suspecting that the fact that it has a male protagonist also helped). It takes the form of a letter written from a correctional facility by the eponymous Erik Schroder to his estranged wife. His crime? Kidnapping their six-year-old daughter, Meadow. The case for his defence is made worse by the fact that he has been living under a false name for years, and his wife knew him not as Erik Schroder, German immigrant, but as American Eric Kennedy.
Kidnap and fraud – it seems difficult to make the reader sympathetic to Schroder. Letting him tell his own story helps us to understand why he acted the way he did. He and his father defected from East Germany to America in 1979. Desperate to be American, he suppressed his German accent and took on the name Eric Kennedy in his teens. He also needed an all-American past to cover his true history. This led to more and more lies, as Schroder explains:
For the record: The groom never told the bride that he was related to the Kennedys of presidential fame. This has been reported in the papers, and the groom categorically denies it. No, it was simply the word “Kennedy” plus the words “near Hyannis Port,” and everyone started rushing to conclusions. The groom will admit that once or twice late at night with his female peers at Mune College, he did not sufficiently debunk the rumor of himself as a second cousin twice removed to the Hyannis Port Kennedys. And he does not deny that the name often greased the gears of bureaucracy, making what would otherwise have been dull encounters with bank loan officers, traffic cops, etc., slightly charged, even when he denied any family connection.
For a while, Shroder is happy in his new life. He marries a woman he loves, is successful in his career, and has a child. Then his wife announces she wants a divorce, and Schroder’s life enters a downward spiral. The divorce leads to a custody battle, his attempt to impress the child custody evaluator goes horrifically, farcically wrong, and his wife’s legal team (‘The Opposition”) suggest he is a danger to Meadow. Schroder is terrified that he will be prevented from seeing his daughter, and begins to slide into depression. On one of his contact days, he spontaneously takes Meadow on a day trip without telling his wife where they are going. The ‘day’ trip extends over several days, running further and further over the agreed contact time, without Schroder making any conscious decision to ‘kidnap’ Meadow. The longer it goes on, the more reluctant he is to take her back, as he knows that he has broken the law and may never be allowed to see her again. His desperation eventually leads to tragedy.
It is unclear how much Meadow understands about the situation they are in, but she is clearly aware that something is not right. Schroder was a stay-at-home father for a year when Meadow was aged 3. He could tell she was intelligent and took it upon himself to teach her to read and give her an eccentric education. Parents are inclined to think their children are clever, but Meadow does seem genuinely precocious. Her conversations with her father are realistically portrayed, as for example in this scene where they are driving across the landscape:
“It really is a beautiful country. A lot of people come here, looking for somewhere to be safe and free.”
“They come to Ellis Island,” Meadow said.
“They used to, sure.”
“But if they come from Mexico, guards shoot at them.”
I nodded encouragingly. “I don’t think they get shot at per se. But yes, it is dangerous to come here sometimes. America can’t fit everybody, right?”
“I don’t see why not.” Meadow gestured out the window. “Plenty of space up here. They could live right there in those woods.”
I grinned. We both returned to staring at Vermont.
“You’re a sweet kid,” I said.
“I know that,” she said. “You tell me that all the time.”
The writing style echoes Schroder’s personality: knowledgeable, discursive and rambling, with a few footnotes and a sense of humour. It is a reasonably straightforward tale: an account of what happened during Schroder and Meadow’s disappearance, interspersed with sections where Schroder explains how his life reached the point where it was able to come about. The Berlin wall was part of Schroder’s personal history, and is also used as a recurring motif throughout the book to represent separation and misunderstanding. (The Berlin wall must be trending right now – The husband’s secret also had it as a theme.) I’m not surprised it was nominated for a prize: it definitely delivers on its intriguing premise.