What an interesting book this is. It has a great premise but delivers more, mainly through incredibly evocative writing of place and characters.
Instructions is the story of Neil, whose father has died and has left him a village in the former East Germany, built on marshes and left to deteriorate badly. Neil’s relationship with his father was strained, to say the least, and we learn more about this as the book goes on. Neil has made some money back in England revamping old houses and selling them on, and is keen to try out some of his skills in Germany, to help bring the village back to life the way he assumes his father would have wanted.
However, it was never going to be that simple. When Neil arrives at the village, he The villagers are distrustful and wary of him, perhaps for obvious reasons, it is immediately clear that the problems of the village will need more work than the basic skills that Neil has to offer.
Neil stays with brother and sister Thomas and Silke, with one of the only habitable houses in the place. Silke does her bit to welcome Neil but there is clearly a strange atmosphere between the siblings, more secrets for the reader to uncover. Silke takes Neil into her confidence and asks him to drive her to Berlin so that she can investigate her past. When she does so, the final layer of the book is uncovered.
The book has a supernatural element which manifests itself through hallucinations and dreams, which contributes to the story in a way, but the strongest element of the book is the place itself. The village is dank, lingering in grey damp unpleasantness and the troubled history is always there with the inhabitants, almost like you travel back in time or that the village is haunted. It’s evocative and the sense of place is very well written.
What also comes through strongly is how much the past shapes everything; all these characters are deeply impacted by their personal history and the lingering effects of the East German regime on the people.
This is a strong debut from Joanna Campbell but it is a solemn book, blending surreal elements, dark humour and tragedy into one absorbing read.
Instructions for the Working Day by Joanna Campbell is published by Fairlight Books on 31 August 2022.