‘Peacocks aren’t exactly people’ [book review]

A review of The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, translated from the German by Annie Rutherford

A German novel set in Scotland and translated into English is a somewhat unusual proposition, as Annie Rutherford is quick to point out in her translator’s note at the end of Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock, which is published next week by V&Q Books. She’s not wrong – but nor was publisher Katy Derbyshire in her view that English-speaking readers deserve to be treated to this literary gem just as much as their German counterparts. After all, having sold half a million copies in her home country, Bogdan must be doing something right.

Cover image The Peacock

And yet I’ll admit that there was a flash of scepticism when I first heard this. Might the book not have been so popular in Germany because it indulged in a bit of good old-fashioned stereotyping? The setting – a crumbling Scottish castle owned by Laird and Lady McIntosh, who rent out several cottages in the grounds to holidaymakers – sounds like a bit of a cliché in itself, and then comes a party of investment bankers from London whose weekend teambuilding excursion is extended by a violent and unexpected snowstorm. It seems like slightly dangerous territory, but in the end I needn’t have worried. The Peacock is one of the most downright enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time, and the combination of Bogdan’s incisive wit and Rutherford’s sensitive translation means that while it treads a fine line, it stays firmly on the right side of cliché.

The Peacock is a novel all about people and, interestingly, their superficial relationships. Though it hints in places at deeper realms of feeling – marriages and romantic affairs successful, failed or blossoming; characters’ opinions of and relationships with themselves – it is essentially about how humans interact as colleagues and strangers, how perceptions of others are formed and changed, and how people can often speak or act entirely at odds with what they are really thinking. As a study of human behaviour in this respect it is fascinating, both sharply observed and extremely funny: anyone who has ever had to attend a teambuilding exercise for work will recognise many aspects of the experience, from the excruciating to the positive. Awkwardness abounds in this novel, but it is awkwardness of a deliciously authentic kind, and given depth by a peppering of serious insights into everyday human interaction.

Impressive, too, is Bogdan’s ability to put her readers in almost as uncomfortable a position as her characters at times, albeit for very different reasons. While the novel is undoubtedly light-hearted, its merry pace and content supported by a certain linguistic buoyancy – on which more later – the author continually presents us with flashes of a less pleasant truth that she simply leaves out in the open, for us to do with as we will. For all the slightly romping nature of the plot, several of the characters are deeply unhappy: take Bernard, for example, one of the investment bankers, who is a generally difficult and unlovable figure. All the same, when the bankers become snowed in and have to phone their families to let them know, Bogdan unceremoniously ends the scene with the line ‘Bernard had nobody to call.’ This is just one of several such sentences that may initially provoke a smile but then invite the reader’s sympathy, all without letting us get too close to the character in question. The superficiality of the novel is in fact what highlights its capacity for deeper understanding of people; the brief nature of the information with which we are presented encourages us to think independently about its characters, to see them as real, partly unknowable humans.

I greatly admired Bogdan’s ability to create diverse and believable characters over the course of fewer than two hundred pages, but I was totally charmed by her similar skills when it came to getting into the heads of animals. Dogs, a goose and a deranged peacock play an important role in the novel; in fact, in what seems to be a comment on human nature, they are deliberately given as much significance as the people who care for them. In a refrain that haunts the entire book – ‘After all, peacocks aren’t exactly people’ (the two nouns are different each time) – various types of animal and human are continually compared against one another, which also links to the theme of superficiality versus hidden depths. Again and again, Bogdan probes our tendency to judge one another merely on what we can see, and ultimately succeeds in making a trait shared by most of humanity ever so slightly ridiculous.

Another interesting aspect of the book, which helps put humans and animals on an equal playing field – both narrator and reader seem to be on a plane just above them – is Bogdan’s totally smooth transition between private thought, spoken word and action, effected largely by her unrelenting use of indirect speech. The lack of direct dialogue is in many ways a little distancing, but it makes possible this seamless blend of parts and underlines another of the novel’s key messages: so often, out of fear of what might happen or what others might think, we leave unsaid what ought to be spoken and instead say things we perhaps don’t mean. The peacock of the title is the grandest metaphor in this respect – to reveal what happens to it would be to spoil the story; suffice it to say that ‘peacock in the larder’ could now be used as an alternative to ‘elephant in the room’ – and the classic teambuilding activities engaged in by the bankers (drawing symbolic pictures, building a den together) also involve a good deal of beating around the bush. With all its indirect speech and focus on the superficial, The Peacock is actually a plea for us to talk meaningfully to one another.

Putting aside the deeper meanings that can be extracted from it, the novel is also a brilliantly fun read. Narrated in short, simple, sometimes repetitive sentences, Bogdan seems to be taking the reader into her confidence to share a good joke – though almost childlike in its construction, this is definitely prose for grown-ups. Her marked style of writing comes across effortlessly in Annie Rutherford’s lively translation: from start to finish the language is sparkling, its dry humour clearly present, while the clichés it does lean upon are emphasised in such a way that they are immediately relieved of their potency. Rutherford knows her audience, and has translated with a good deal of cultural sensitivity.

Sitting perfectly alongside other V&Q titles like Daughters and Journey through a Tragicomic Century, The Peacock is a clever and vivacious novel that gives readers a lot more than they might think they’re getting. In its neatly packaged plot (which also has a tongue-in-cheek air) it goes a long way to smashing those stereotypes about Germans not having a sense of humour, and illuminates as it does so a smart and engaging new voice in contemporary European literature.

The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, translated by Annie Rutherford, is published by V&Q Books on 1 March 2021. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

2 thoughts on “‘Peacocks aren’t exactly people’ [book review]

  1. Thanks for this engaging review – I got a really good sense of the book! Annie Rutherford, the translator, is actually a friend of mine, but I’ve not read this – so I was curious to hear more about what it was about!

    Having taken part in one too many ‘team building’ exercises myself, I might have to check it out haha. Relive that particular form of awkwardness!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much, Carly. It’s great that you and Annie are friends – all the more reason to read the book! I’ve also taken part in team-building exercises in my time and was actually cringing at parts of this – she gets it really spot on. I hope you enjoy it just as much!

      Liked by 1 person

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