It’s 1949 when Netta’s father Max is released from a Siberian POW camp and returns to his home in occupied Germany. But he is not the man the little girl is expecting – the brave, handsome doctor her mother Erika told her stories of. Erika too struggles to reconcile this withdrawn, volatile figure with the husband she knew and loved before, and, as she strives to break through the wall Max has built around himself, Netta is both frightened and jealous of this interloper in the previously cosy household she shared with her mother and doting grandparents. Now, if family life isn’t tough enough, it is about to get even tougher, when a murder sparks a police investigation, which begins to unearth dark secrets they all hoped had been forgotten.
Many thanks to Clink Street Publishing, blog tour organiser Rachel Gilbey for inviting me to be part of the blog tour for The Watcher. Special thanks to Monika Jephcott Thomas for taking the time to write a guest post.
ERIKA – CHARACTER SPOTLIGHT
The character of Erika is heavily based on my own mother. Nearly everything that happens to Erika, in The Watcher and my previous novel Fifteen Words is based on true events. These events, when I heard about them, seemed so inherently dramatic, that basing Erika on my mother was, for me, a no-brainer.
In The Watcher Erika is the mother of a five year old (Netta) and her husband Max has just returned from the war and a subsequent four years in a Russian POW camp in Siberia. Max is greatly changed by the experience. He is malnourished, and physically not the attractive man Erika once knew. But more importantly to her, he is distant, his behaviour erratic – he is suffering from PTSD, and although both Erika and Max are practising doctors, neither of them (like the rest of the medical world in 1949) have the therapeutic vocabulary to identify and deal with it. Consequently the strain on their relationship is immense.
The door was ajar and Erika saw Karin peering in at Max slumped awkwardly in the tiny bath. Erika was speared with jealousy in that instance. Not because Karin was younger and thinner than Erika – no, the girl may have been only nineteen, but she was unhealthily thin, and her short brown hair and the dark circles round her eyes gave her the appearance of a boy rather than a female rival. It wasn’t anything physical. It was the way she looked at the unseeing Max right then through the gap in the door with such sympathy. The kind of sympathy Erika found it so difficult to show. And who could blame her? This man was meant to be her brave military doctor, back from the war, undefeated by internment. The wonderful specimen she had shown photographs of to little Netta as she tried to get her off to sleep at night; to whose image they sang:
If I were a little bird and had wings, I would fly to you…
Whom she desperately wanted back – not just because she loved him, not to dampen her urges towards Rodrick even, but to help her share the unexpected and undeniable burden that being a parent was.
Erika put herself in the gap between door and frame, ostensibly to protect her husband’s privacy, but actually to obscure her own lack of connection with the man in the bath.
‘Is everything all right?’ Karin had the voice of a mouse. ‘Can I help at all?’
‘It’s all right, Karin,’ Erika said, reminding herself and the housekeeper who was the boss here. ‘We don’t need you. You can go back to bed.’
Erika and Max’s relationship has never been plain sailing. It is rooted in tension. When they met Max was a practising Catholic, deeply opposed to the Nazi regime, while Erika was an irreligious supporter of the Nazi party, since she had been led to believe that her ailing country could be ‘made great again’ by Hitler and his policies, some of which chimed with her own scientific convictions.
Fifteen Words charts the many influences which tug at the young Erika and lead her down this path: from joining the Hitler Youth Movement as a way out of her oppressive family home as a teenager, to becoming embroiled in the attempted assassination of an opponent of the Nazi regime when, as a penniless student, she is offered money to do so. Also in Fifteen Words Erika is forced to give birth to and raise Netta for four years not knowing if Max is alive or if he will ever return. So when she finds solace and simply pragmatic support in Rodrick the local carpenter, a solid, practical breadwinner, can we blame her? In Fifteen Words I have tried to paint the many light and dark sides which make up Erika (and all of us for that matter). I have tried to show the many circumstances and agents, external and internal, which push and pull us around as we grow and lead us down the paths we choose, for better or worse.
Nevertheless, if Erika is hard to sympathise with in Fifteen Words, in The Watcher I think we must find her situation – trying desperately to mend her family, relate to the stranger her husband now is and break through the wall he has built around himself – a moving one.
Knowing her shady past, when there is murder in the household, the reader may instantly suspect Erika of foul play. She certainly seems to have a motive and the ability. But is that just our prejudice at work?
When Max invites a prostitute (Jenny), whom he seemed to be falling for in Siberia, into his and Erika’s home, it puts Erika’s relationship with the carpenter into sharper perspective, and hopefully illuminates that these characters are all trying (desperately) to be a normal family after a war where the extraordinary became the norm. Surprisingly perhaps, Erika welcomes Jenny into her home, because she is convinced Jenny will be a conduit for Erika to learn more about Max’s past in the labour camp which he refuses to talk about. Desperate times call for desperate measures! But of course this situation creates more problems for the family, not less. At least, at first.
‘I know it’s been really difficult for you since you got back. I know that you went through some terrible things and that your mind is—’
‘Please do not presume to tell me what’s going on in my own mind!’ he snapped, eyes still on the window. ‘You do not know what’s going on in my head.’
‘So tell me!’ she cried. ‘Let me in! I’m your wife and I want to know.’ She refrained from adding: as Jenny does, but hurried over to the bed and perched on the nearside, a sea of blankets between her and where he sat. ‘I want to help you.’
Those last words seemed to prick him. She saw him flinch and knew she was onto something. She knew he always thought of himself as the helper, the curer, not the victim or the casualty.
Erika is a good doctor, although there are many professional obstacles for her in the age where women are expected to be nothing ‘more’ than nurses. We see her in action as a doctor throughout The Watcher, but she also has to deal with the fact that her daughter Netta is suffering from an illness she cannot seem to fix. Partly this is because one aspect of Netta’s illness is psychological and psychology is an underrated medical practise in this era, but also it is because they live in a city where the air is polluted, ironically, by the factories which are fast rebuilding the country. That is when Erika has to make the difficult decision to send her daughter away for some fresh sea air.
In Erika therefore we have a woman struggling to be a supportive wife, a good mother and a good doctor. In order to be these things, we will learn that she has kept some dark secrets during the course of The Watcher, just as she did in Fifteen Words, but this time her motives might be less dubious. Or they might not. You’ll just have to read the book to find out!
The Watcher can be purchased from Amazon
Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, north-west Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner Jeff she established the Academy of Play & Child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty per cent of children who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002. In 2016 her first book Fifteen Words was published.
Monika Jephcott Thomas can be followed on her website.