The Coffee Pot Book Club – Editorial Book Review
The wind whipped up blowing sawdust into his eyes and making them water. Anton stopped to rub them and looked into the distance. Lightning was flashing behind the Niesen mountains. He licked his forefinger and held it up in the air. Yes, the storm was coming in their direction.
As Anton latched the door behind him he felt a wave of love for his family. He cherished his wife and adored their two boys. He was looking forward to meeting his unborn child. But the storm changed everything.
Now he is a widower with two traumatised boys and a newborn desperately in need of nourishment. With his home destroyed by a lightning strike, Anton must find the courage and the money to start again.
Prepare to be moved by the story of a poverty-stricken family and a matchstick factory that would leave tragic consequences on the close-knit community.
The Matchstick Boy by Rowena Kinread is a sweeping historical novel that follows the lives of one family across four generations. Kinread's novel is set in the fictional village of Weissbrügg in the beautiful Swiss Alps.
The conversational tone is very prominent in Kinread’s narrative. Despite being written in the third person, the story felt like a direct conversation between the author and her readers. The way it was told made it feel like a memoir, giving the story a deeply personal touch. The later chapters of this novel centres around a courtroom hearing, and the author modifies her writing style to mimic the formal atmosphere, with the court proceedings primarily presented through documents and letters. The author's writing style gave the impression that she was quietly passing these documents to the reader while narrating her story. This style of writing is quite unique, but I think it worked really well.
The author’s knowledge of this era is evident throughout this novel. It's obvious that Kinread has devoted countless hours to studying this era of history, and her effort has certainly been rewarded. I found the historical background of this novel to be genuinely authentic in its portrayal. In the same way, the author skilfully depicts the essence, purity, and peril of the Swiss Alps. The beauty of the Alps quickly turns into fear as the protagonists face the unpredictable forces of nature - whether that be a thunderstorm, an avalanche, or a flood.
Throughout this novel, poverty remains a constant theme. Kinread thoroughly examines the impact of poverty on the people of this village and the surrounding areas. There are countless illustrations between those who have and those who do not. Different degrees of poverty are also shown. There are those with a roof over their heads, and those who are left starving out on the street. Kinread also explores how the local community reacted to the desperation of families who had nothing, and who travelled to the local towns in the hope of aid and/or work. There were those, like Margot, who tried to help, even though she lived in poverty as well, but there was only so much that could be done. As the story progresses there are men such as Reverend Moser who tries to stop the exploitation of children by the matchstick factories, but he faces insurmountable odds, for the factory owners are determined to carry on exploiting children and the impoverished families need the extra coins the children brought home. Kinread depicts the impossible situation that those in poverty faced. There is always a small flame of hope that they can pull themselves and their children out of poverty but realistically, with things the way they were, that was never going to be possible. It was utterly heartbreaking when young Jakob, who had been encouraged by his family all his life to save so he could become an apprentice, realised that he would never have enough money to pay for the apprenticeship and thus, never be more than what his father was.
Anton Schneider was a character that I really came to care about. He suffers some terrible losses in this novel - first his wife, and then his son. But he is determined to keep a roof over his family's heads and so finds work at the local matchstick factory.
Through the depiction of Anton and his family, the reader begins to understand how much power the factory owners had over their workforce. While their employees worked in hazardous conditions with no appropriate ventilation, a lack of clean running water, or proper sanitation, the owners lived like kings. The rich got richer while the poor were paid survival wages only. The factory owners cared not one whit about their workforce. With huge unemployment, everyone who worked for them was expendable and could be easily replaced. In these dire factories, young children worked anything up to 14 hours and were beaten if the manager deemed it necessary. Food was scarce and medicine was expensive. Anton risks his life in the poisonous phosphor steam for one and a half francs a day. He knows the danger of working with phosphor, but he doesn’t understand the long-term effects on his health. I thought Anton’s character was wonderfully drawn.
Jakob, the son of Anton, played a pivotal role in advancing the story. The reader meets Jakob as a young boy who has just lost his mother. He is a child just like any other, the only difference is he is living in poverty. Similar to his father, he believes that hard work may help him overcome poverty. It is sometimes difficult to remember that Jakob is just a child, for he works long hours, either in the factory or with his Uncle Gustl, and he does not have much time to play. Similar to the other children, he attends school but is additionally burdened with long hours of work in the factory and he has only limited food rations. He believes that by saving diligently now, he can afford an apprenticeship later in life, sacrificing treats and sweets except for one moment of weakness. He is a very thoughtful child and his kindness in the face of such suffering makes even the local undertaker pause for thought. His friendship with Berta was one of the highlights of this novel. Jakob is the kind of character that readers can truly get behind and it was a delight to witness his coming of age.
Apart from poverty, this novel features multiple antagonists. Firstly, there is Helga who believes she is superior to her family because her husband has a decent job, to the point that she refuses to breastfeed her starving niece, Anton's motherless newborn. Hari, her son, grows up pretending to be pious but actually wants to swindle people and move to America. Ramun, who is the son of a matchstick factory owner, is the most odious among all the antagonists. He is a spoilt child and grows up to be an entitled adult. He is indifferent to the lives he ruins and he believes money can cover up any wrongdoing. He rapes and abuses countless women but it is only when he attacks Jakob’s disabled daughter that other women come forward to the police with their own accusations of abuse. Ramon is an entirely disagreeable character. While his crimes were horrific, they exemplified the power imbalance between the wealthy and the poor, and his character made for a sombre read.
The Matchstick Boy by Rowena Kinread is a novel of haunting beauty that will keep you engrossed until the early hours.
I Highly Recommend. Review by Mary Anne Yarde
The Coffee Pot Book Club