In the second half of James Baldwin’s seminal novel Giovanni’s Room, the narrator spots a sailor dressed all in white striding across a boulevard in Paris. He looks at him with a longing he doesn’t quite understand. The sailor reminds him of home, he realises, before making the following observation: “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
Chitra Ramaswamy invokes Baldwin at the start of her new book, Homelands. In it, she explores how a place becomes a home, what makes a family put down roots, and how hatred can tear them out. She does so by deftly interweaving her own life story with that of the 97-year-old Holocaust survivor she befriends, Henry Wuga.
They are, superficially, an unlikely pair: one born in 1970s Britain to Indian immigrant parents; the other a refugee from Nazi Germany who arrived on the Kindertransport in 1939. Ramaswamy, a journalist, first met Wuga in 2011, when her editor sent her to interview him and his wife in the run-up to Refugee Week. She found herself back again within a few weeks, this time on a social call – the first of many.
Wuga, a keen skier, tells her of the time he met Prince Charles standing in a queue for a ski lift in the village of Klosters, Switzerland. When asked by the heir to the British throne where he came from, Henry, who has a German accent, answered “Glasgow”. He was pressed further, of course; Ramaswamy notes that the older she gets, the more she realises there is no answer to this question capable of satisfying everyone.
Wuga’s bewildering journey takes him from Nuremberg, Germany, where he lived as a child, to Britain on the train that saved him – and 10,000 other Jewish children – from annihilation. “I remember the horror,” he tells Ramaswamy, “I was older, but many of these kids were six and seven years old. They had never left their mums and dads. I tell this story a lot. It never gets … it was the howling of the children. Carriages full of screaming children.”
He arrived in Glasgow on 5 May 1939, where his sponsor was waiting for him, and bounced into his new existence in the way only children can. But his life changed once again at the outbreak of war. Shortly after turning 16, Wuga was found guilty of corresponding with the enemy, simply for writing to his parents and other family members in Europe. The account of his internment in six different camps is the most gripping part of Homelands, shedding light on a particularly dark period in the history of Britain’s treatment of refugees.
It is a cliche to describe a book as achingly beautiful, but those are the words I reach for: Homelands is both beautiful and, at times, left me with an ache I struggled to name. Ramaswamy’s prose is at its most visceral when she writes of her grief at her mother’s death. At the hospital, the junior doctor and her mother speak in their native Kannada, and Ramaswamy sees her “magically transform” into her first self, her Indian self. “She seems not only to be dying but going home. And in every possible way I cannot follow her.”The narrative, which shifts between past and present, Ramaswamy and Wuga’s stories, sometimes feels stretched too thinly. It relies heavily on WG Sebald’s Austerlitz, the novel about a Kindertransport survivor who tries to recapture the truth of his shattered childhood. It is a haunting work, which Ramaswamy reads “obsessively” and turns to whenever she feels lost. But the references to it feel like an unnecessary distraction. The remarkably self-assured material that forms the backbone of the book is able to stand on its own.
On the question of home and belonging, Ramaswamy finally comes to an answer that satisfies her, and the reader. “In the future I will start to understand that belonging lies in the search. That disorientation is the true birthplace of millions of us.” It is clear by the end that her search has also uncovered something more solid, since Ramaswamy and Wuga have found each other.