It is 1936. Daphne Linden, the unworldly, 18-year-old daughter of a priapic Oxford professor, is sent to finishing school in Germany along with a slew of other nice young girls, all of whom unwittingly get caught up in a period of tumultuous political upheaval. At first, Daphne and her friends are more interested in cream puddings and going out with boys wearing frightfully dashing SS uniforms than paying much attention to the spreading Nazi threat. But the more Daphne opens her eyes to what is happening around her, the more she begins to grasp the unpleasant truths lying just beneath the surface.
Seventy years later, Daphne’s granddaughter, Francie is a feature writer on a glossy magazine who lives with her “Danish-looking” husband while simultaneously nurturing an ill-advised crush on her editor. When Francie is sent to write a travel feature in Bavaria , she stumbles across a photograph of her grandmother that sets in train a journey of self-discovery.
Rachel Johnson neatly intertwines these two plots with panache and verve. The earlier storyline is loosely based on the experience of her own grandmother, a debutante who was sent to Munich to be “finished off,” and “Winter Games” draws the veil back on this fascinating, overlooked social aspect of interwar history. Johnson has clearly done her research, yet her erudition is lightly worn and the characters remain spirited rather than being lost under a weight of period detail.
But it’s the modern-day segments that are the most fun to read. Johnson has a brilliant eye for the telling specifics — the women who approach their reproductive organs “as a gardener might approach an allotment, as soil to keep fertile and loamy prior to seeding”; the painfully expensive west London delis with their “lost variety” tomatoes “as if they had to send in Harrison Ford, guns blazing, to bring them to us.” She is a natural comic writer and has a breezy, Mitfordian tone that makes you laugh at the same time as wincing in recognition.
To write an entertaining romp set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany is a tricky feat to pull off. Yet Johnson has done it — and done it in style.