Book review: Instructions for the Working Day by Joanna Campbell

Neil Fischer is shy, socially awkward and repressed – an English archetype. His late father, though, was from East Germany. Their relationship was difficult, his father volatile and controlling. Now he has one last surprise for Neil – he has bequeathed him the village where he was born. Marschwald is now reduced to a handful of crumbling buildings and the few residents who haven’t moved on since reunification opened up greater opportunities.

Neil travels there, with no clear idea of what to do, but with a vague idea that he can renovate his property for the good of the remaining villagers. While there he stays with Silke and her brother Thomas. Silke has difficult memories of the East German regime and Neil’s presence acts as a catalyst for her to confront her past.

Instructions for the Working Day has some very dark elements, confronting, as it does, the nature of tyranny, cruelty and the way the voice of an oppressor can be internalised. Neil and Silke are both, in their ways, imprisoned by their pasts.

The changes Silke and the former East Germans have experienced are vividly evoked, as is the psychological hold of the regime which left its victims unable to trust their own perceptions. This is counterpointed with Neil’s outsider’s perspective, his confusion at social norms, his imperfect recall of the time he spent in East Germany with his parents, his fractured sense of self, lending the book a hallucinatory quality, shot through with moments of dark comedy.

Those of us who read a lot can become jaded, too often feeling like we know what’s coming next. What I like most about Instructions for the Working Day is its freshness. It’s not quite like any other book I can think of, distinctive, disturbing and memorable.

I received a copy of Instructions for the Working Day from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Instructions for the Working Day on Goodreads

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