Book Review: Portrait of Stella by Susan Wüthrich

portrait of stellaA fake birth certificate! No record of her existence in the UK data base. Jemima Ashton is desperate to discover her real identity. With scant information and the burning question ‘who am I?’, she embarks on an incredible journey of detection. On learning of her late mother Stella’s sudden disappearance during WWII, she retraces her footsteps across the globe and at a distant vineyard, unearths a family she had no idea existed. While treading a path of narrow-minded bigotry, scandalous revelations emerge of two families inextricably linked by one woman and the drastic steps they took to hide the truth.

Book provided by netgalley in exchange for a review.

This book is split across multiple countries and multiple decades as Jemima goes in search of answers. In the early 1980s it starts innocently enough, as Jemima goes to renew her passport. Recently divorced from her English husband, it turns out to be more difficult than she thought…a check of her papers show her birth records have been forged, and that she doesn’t really exist. She no longer qualifies for a British passport as the wife of a British citizen.

Her mother now dead, she has to rely on partial information and the memories of her grandmother, and her mother’s best friend in the war. It leads her first to New Zealand and then South Africa during the worst of the apartheid era. As things are pieced together, and long buried stories are told, Jemima finds at every turn that she doesn’t really know anything about herself or her family.

This is a sweeping book, covering the 1930s through to the 1980s and 3 generations of several families. There does seem to be a cast of thousands (not quite but…) and this was one of the few times I regret not having drawn a family tree in order to track who was related to whom and how.

Some of the story is (probably) underplayed – I suspect that if the extent of cruelty of Apartheid was fully explored, it would make the book unbelievable. There is one or two matters which do push the bounds of believability – I’ll just say “Leo” – and which made me go “hmmmmm”. After the initial problem of her passport, Jemima seemed to be able to move around the globe with apparent ease, and have no problems finding or taking on short term lets in apartments (no hotels here!). There was narey a thought about the cost of flights or of phone calls between SA and England – they were not as cheap or easy in the 1980s as they are now.

I have to admit that whilst I don’t hate this book, I didn’t love it either. It didn’t fully engage me emotionally, and I didn’t really care about the characters for most of the book. The ending was a satisfactory way of completing the story.

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