Sophie Lambert on Motherland

Sophie Lambert

Sophie Lambert, agent at Conville & Walsh

“As an agent I am always drawn to stories that offer up glimpses of places I’ll almost certainly never get to go to. So when Motherland arrived on my desk, I was immediately swept into a world that no longer even exists – 1970’s East Germany.

Jess and Eleanor are unwavering in their commitment to and belief in socialism being the path to happiness and fairness, and their integrity underpins their actions throughout. But it wasn’t just Jo’s rich evocation of place or the political and historical intrigue that had me hooked, it was the humour. Jo has gifted Jess with a wonderful eye for observation and an endearing and perfectly judged voice. From the outset Jess reminded me of another Jess – Jeanette Winterson’s protagonist in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – who was a personal favourite of mine.

Motherland is as much about the bond between mothers and daughters as it is about political idealism and adventure, and the crumbling of beliefs and loss. What Jo does so effortlessly is to thrust us into 1970’s Tamworth as well as the GDR – Motherland is packed with detail and flavour that is reminiscent of Goodbye Lenin and East is East. Jo peppers the narrative with cultural reference points that enhance the overall sense of place and time, thus building up – over the course of the novel – a snapshot of an era as well as a place.

Motherland is so clearly written from the heart and Jo’s own experiences, knowledge and understanding echo throughout its pages. And when it did arrive on my desk (in the form of a traditional paper submission in the post) this conviction and passion shone through. As an agent it’s unusual to stumble across such a gem in the so called ‘slush pile’ (known to us more commonly as the talent pool!) and it underlines to me what is so rewarding about my job. I know that Jess and Eleanor (as well as Jo and her mother Isobel) would want their story shared far and wide. They would want their hope and naivety, their principled approach and their love of sauerkraut celebrated, pondered and puzzled over and they would want us all to raise a glass of Rotkappchen to life. I urge you to dive into Jo McMillan’s Motherland. It embraces somewhere that has disappeared and I promise it will make you laugh as well as cry.”

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published in hardback and ebook by John Murray on July 2nd 2015.  Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcMillan and find out more about Motherland and Jo by visiting her website

Motherland, a novel, by Jo McMillan

(c) Guy Batey

(c) Guy Batey

It’s election night 1979 and we’re having a party. My mum is drinking Bull’s Blood punch from a Meissen teacup and raising a toast to defeat.

Except it isn’t my mum.

It’s Eleanor, my fictional mother, and they aren’t the same person.

Motherland is a novel. It says so on the cover. But it didn’t start out that way. When I first sat down to tell the story of my communist childhood, it was going to be a memoir. The story was true. I’d lived it. I knew what happened. And I understood non-fiction. I’d spent a while in academia. Strange to think it now, but at one time, my favourite place was the British Library and my seat there never quite cooled. I was patient and forensic and I liked dissection. I spent my working life in a library, but it could just as well have been a morgue.

And the odd thing is, I did end up dealing with a corpse. My dad died for Motherland, and I killed him off. In 1978, when the story opens, my father – the real one – was not in a tin in my mum’s knicker drawer. He was in the middle of a tricky divorce. I wasn’t far into this memoir when it dawned on me I’d had a complicated life. In fact, I’d had two – one drama with each parent – and I couldn’t tell both in this book. I wanted my protagonists to live their singular story in the way my mother and I never did. So my father got terminal cancer before his child was born, Jo and Isobel became Jess and Eleanor, and Motherland became fiction.

I’d never felt more relieved. I was released from my duty to fact, and facts were proving thin on the ground. The first necessity for this story might have arisen in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but the End of the World as you’ve known it isn’t something you just sit down and write about. So instead, I forgot about it. And I did what everyone else was doing with the triumph of capitalism: I went shopping.

And then I went to China.

It was a long way from everything that had happened, and where millions of other people were buying their way out of their political past.

And in China, I had to reinvent myself. I wasn’t going to be a career communist anymore, so instead I became a sexologist, a Mandarin-speaking one – until I said some things the authorities didn’t like and Beijing banned me.

But by then, twenty years had gone by: long enough to face the End of the World, too long for the documents and witnesses I needed. I asked around Party circles, and papers had been binned, people had died, memories were slipping. Facts were not going to tell my story. The library wasn’t going to help. Instead, I had to look inwards. And it felt bruising, and oddly heartless, to tell emotional truths – harder still to commit them to paper.

But at least this was fiction. I wasn’t pointing fingers and naming names in the prosecution of my past. And that was important. Motherland was turning into a book about how we’d been engaged in the politics of abstracts, of people in theory, and we’d had no time for the real ones we actually knew. It was a book about empathy, about how much people mattered, so it needed to be an empathetic book. If Motherland had been memoir, the people I most cared about might never have forgiven me.

But they weren’t in it. I had fictional characters – flawed ones: self-righteous, ruthless, pliant.

And my plan was to set them in motion and watch their logic play out.

Only the problem was, it didn’t.

The biggest flaw of my flawed characters was they had no idea of the story. And neither had I. The possibilities seemed endless. I was free to make things up, but that meant I could make anything up. Real events had ceased to apply, so of the thousands of things that could happen next, which actually did? I didn’t have an agenda, a plan, a clue, it turned out. I read novels, of course, lapping them up, but I had no idea what made them tick. And now, here I was in charge of a novel, and I felt sick. I’d have given anything for certainty, for academia – at times even the morgue.

So I did what a mortician manqué would do: I got out the scalpel. I stopped consuming novels and started dissecting them. I took apart books on plot and pinned the walls with three-act structures. On the telly too: I watched dramas and guessed what would happen. Sometimes I even got it right. I became the spoiler on the sofa.

It took many drafts, but in the end, and several years after my father’s literary death, he is still alive and I have a novel. I wrote something kinder than a memoir, and a story wider than the specifics of my past. Through the made-up minutiae of Jess and Eleanor’s lives, Motherland looks outwards – at how we do politics, at how much people matter, at when to take a stand. And because politics doesn’t go away, the questions it raises still apply. There’s not that much difference between 1979 and 2015.

Motherland is fiction and my mum isn’t Eleanor (though Eleanor wouldn’t have been possible without her). After this election, I asked my mum how she’d seen it in. Wrapped up in her dressing gown, she said, because she feels the cold these days. And she’d raised a glass of Baileys, because that’s her tipple, and she’d toasted defeat. ‘And then I toasted the revolution,’ because my mum’s never defeated for long. And ‘because the revolution’s coming.’

‘In my lifetime?’

‘Of course in your lifetime.’ And then a pause. ‘How old are you now?’

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published in hardback and ebook by John Murray on July 2nd 2015.  Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcMillan and find out more about Motherland and Jo by visiting her website

Our May Books of the Month

Welcome all to the fifth month of our book group! This month we’ve picked two family dramas, spanning East Germany, the island of Mallorca and Tamworth. The first is a darkly comic love story with a twist, the other a mother-daughter tale of belief, doubt and loss of innocence – both guaranteed to get you thinking.

Look out for more exclusive blogs about both books over the coming weeks – not only from us but from the authors, editors and agents.


The Rocks by Peter Nichols

Set on the idyllic island of Mallorca, this is a double love story told in reverse.

Opening in 2005 with a dramatic event that appears to seal the mystery of two lives, the story moves backwards in time, unravelling over sixty years, amid the olive groves and bars, the boats and poolside parties, the lives and relationships of two intertwined families within an expat community of endearing and flawed characters.

As one story is revealed, another, sweeter one – a love story of a couple from the younger generation – arises in the wake of their elder’s failures.

The Rocks is a darkly comic, bittersweet, ultimately heart-breaking novel that slips back in time to reveal a shocking incident that marked and altered these lives for ever.

Follow Peter on Twitter @NicholsRocksThe Rocks will be published in the US by Riverhead Books on 26th May 2015, and will be published in paperback in the UK by Quercus on 2nd July 2015 (we love the hardback cover, but check out that paperback jacket!).


Motherland by Jo McMillan

It is 1978, Jess is thirteen and she already has a reputation – as the daughter of the only communist in town. But then, it’s in the blood. The Mitchells have been in the Party since the Party began.

Jess and her mother Eleanor struggle to sell socialism to Tamworth – a sleepy Midlands town that just doesn’t want to know. So when Eleanor is invited to spend a summer teaching in East Germany, she and Jess leap at the chance to see what the future looks like. On the other side of the Iron Curtain they turn from villains into heroes. And when Eleanor meets widower Peter and his daughter, a new, more peaceful life seems possible.

But the Cold War has no time for love and soon the trouble begins. Peter is dispatched for two years of solidarity work in Laos. Friends become enemies, and Jess discovers how easy it is to switch sides, and how sides can be switched for you, sometimes without you even knowing.

Motherland is a tragi-comic portrait of a childhood overcome with belief. It’s about loss of faith and loss of innocence, and what it’s like to grow up on the losing side of history.

Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcmillan, and check out her website, www.jomcmillan.comMotherland will be published in the UK by John Murray on 2nd July 2015.