England, the seaside, some time in the 1980s, and Paul Brickman is beginning a new painting. He is famous for his abstracts, with saturated blocks of bright colour, but this new work is different: it’s a figurative self-portrait. And as he follows the lines of his physiognomy – bald head, proud nose, doughy, ageing neck – he begins to tell the story of himself.
He starts in 1922, when he was called Paul Beckerman, and had just arrived at the Bauhaus art school, then based in Weimar. The Bauhaus babies, as the first year are called, are introduced to some fundamentals by expressionist painter and teacher Johannes Itten: “You – we – are here to play,” he says. “Every day I want you to spend a part of it doing nothing but daydreaming … It is a radical act to do nothing.” “Instress” is the thing – the singularity and essence of materials that, if clearly perceived, will dictate form. Looking, especially the quality of looking, becomes a moral act. For a while some of the new students even fast in order to attain a plane where all distraction is stripped away.
As they are separated from all they have ever known – provincial German and Czech families, regular meals – Paul and his friends, a golden group of six wandering in and out of each other’s rooms and through the Weimar woods, are forced closer and closer together, acolytes in a near-cult set against the larger, gathering cult of nazism in the background. Paul falls in love with Charlotte, Charlotte with Jenö, Walter with Jenö. Those first intense weeks of discovery and moral testing, thinks Paul, later, “disarranged us for the next decade”.
Like Wood’s prizewinning second novel Mrs Hemingway, which proceeded in a tightly choreographed dance that handed an increasingly drunken Ernest Hemingway from past to present to past, wife to wife to wife, The Hiding Game is narratively propulsive and extremely well managed. At first it appears to be a stage on which everything is set out (“If Walter killed her, then I killed Charlotte, too,” says Paul, on page three), but then curtain after curtain is drawn up, and the emotional surprises keep coming. Mrs Hemingway was written from the points of view of Hemingway’s four real wives; in this novel the historical personages (Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Anni and Josef Albers, Itten) are largely in the background, and the protagonists invented. The Hiding Game feels like a kind of cross between William Boyd’s The New Confessions and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, whose structure it echoes, and it possesses similar satisfactions. It boasts smooth, clear and occasionally properly memorable prose (the second iteration of the school, in Dessau, is “a grid of surveillance”; a woman gives a “hobnailed smile”; the cars in Hitler’s cavalcade are “black and sleek and willing”). It has a vivid sense of place; nice set pieces; characters to care for; and a moral universe whose parameters are internally set then underscored by the 20th century’s clearest possible delineation of good and evil.
Often this is effective – for instance when, in Weimar, the school secretary arrives to ask anyone foreign or Jewish or communist to leave the class. “They don’t want to subsidise anybody who is not their own,” says a student, though really, no one who knows of Nazi Germany – or indeed has followed the development of Britain’s “hostile environment” immigration policy – needs that particular fear spelled out. But sometimes nazism feels overly leaned on, a readymade absolute darkness, when really it must have felt rather more complicated to be alive in the 1930s. So lines such as: “He actually seemed a sweet man, as much as a Nazi could be”; or: “On Tuesday, the unthinkable happened instead: Hitler became chancellor” feel unearned – why unthinkable, exactly? Paul’s father has turned out to be a keen Nazi, after all – not to mention Paul’s previous employer. To be fair, the novel is voiced by someone who is looking back, 40 years on, and knows what happened – but as readers, we are also expected to be in the moment with his younger, hindsight-lacking self, and so it seems a missed opportunity, and too virtuously simplistic.
Yet in the main the questions The Hiding Game asks are no less important for having been asked many times before: can the most damaging acts come about through love rather than hate? What is worse: willed ignorance, self-justification or lying to oneself? “I too looked away. It was easy.” And Paul, in England, raises his brush – but can’t quite meet his own eyes.
• The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood is published by Picador (RRP £14.99) To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.