If you love art-related fiction, you’ll definitely want to read The Hiding Game. It’s a superb novel, rich in atmosphere and brimming with human emotion as it explores love and betrayal in a world on the brink of cataclysmic change.
The Hiding Game traces the complex relationships, jealousies and rivalries of six students at the avant garde Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar, Germany. Paul, Walter, Charlotte, Jenö, Kaspar and Irmi are talented, intense and hungry for new experiences; willing to do whatever it takes to achieve greatness. They’re ideally suited to an educational establishment where students are told that fasting and experiencing pain will help them gain a purified vision and become better artists.
From the day they meet as first year students, these six form an inner circle; a golden group set apart by their creative spirit and enthusiastic adoption of a free-wheeling lifestyle. Their world is a heady swirl of alcohol, drugs, outlandish inauguration ceremonies and eccentric fancy dress parties but such escapades prove dangerous when they attract the attention of the conservative residents of Weimar. For this is 1920s Germany when the Nazi movement is gathering pace and the Bauhaus – and everything it represents – is anathema to those on the political right. The students – and the art school itself – are placed in a precarious position.
The Personal Meets The Political
Wood mirrors the turbulent political situation in Germany with turmoil in this group of friends whose close bonds break down amid the pain of unrequited love and jealousy. Paul is captivated by Charlotte but she fell in love with Jenö; Walter is enthralled by Jenö but his feelings are never reciprocated. Ultimately it’s Charlotte, a Czech Jew, who pays the price with her life. Thirty years later it’s left to Paul to reveal the truth of what happened to Charlotte and his own part in her death. He blames Walter for her death but confesses he was also guilty of betraying the girl he loved. “I too could have saved her,” he says, “I chose not to act.”
Did he betray Charlotte out of ignorance about the risks in Germany to people like her? Or did he choose not to see? We don’t get to discover the answer until the final pages of the book. Deftly Naomi Wood uses the novel to question whether it’s possible to notice dark forces at work and yet choose not to see them. Significantly, these students are told in one of their first lectures, that “Looking, especially the quality of looking, becomes a moral act.” But though they notice changes around them, like the increasing number of “brownshirts” on the streets, such observations are almost casual. As if what is happening around them isn’t as important as what’s happening in their own lives. A chilling thought
Blend Of Fact and Fiction
I knew a little about The Bauhaus before I read this book, having visited the museum in Berlin a few years ago, but The Hiding Game took my understanding of the to a whole different level. Naomi Wood takes us into the very heart of the art school – the studios. We get to eavesdrop as celebrated practitioners outline their philosophy of design and the students grapple with directions to taste glass and scratch each other with steel wool as they explore the unique nature of materials. Among these fictional characters, walk real artists, like the esteemed Johannes Itten, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. It’s fascinating stuff and clearly based on detailed research but never comes across as such.
For anyone with even a passing interest in modern art and design this novel will be a delight. But the novel has a much broader appeal, blending the story of a personal tragedy into the context of a world tragedy. It’s such an intelligent yet emotionally immersive novel that I’m surprised it hasn’t made more of a showing in the literary prize lists. I see it was shortlisted for an HWA Gold Crown and longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, both in 2020 but I’m surprised it didn’t make the Women’s Prize For Fiction.