“Gifts ought to be free, but they never are. They tie you to the wishes of others. To your own sad expectations. To the penitentiary of your dreams.”
Thomas Ruder is a dreamer and incurable romantic. One night, he receives a mysterious package: a blue box, tied with white ribbon, bigger than a watch box but smaller than a box that could contain a single book. There’s no note, just a series of numbers: his date of birth. Unnerved by this, Thomas leaves the box unopened. Another is delivered to Liselotte Hauptmann: Thomas’s friend, fellow student and the girl he’s in love with. Unlike him, she does open her box and its contents prompt her to drop everything to chase the dream it has shown her. Worried, Thomas follows, inadvertently drawing both his friend Johann and Daumen the gift maker into the web. They will travel to Grenze, a desolate dot at the edge of the map, where Reynard the impresario is to put on a play, with two very special actors. Their journey will not only have them questioning reality but the very core at the concept of human identity.
Rich and dense as a fruitcake, tonally, The Gift Maker comes across as a mix between a fairytale and a European arthouse film. What begins as a modern fable of self-identity and doppelgangers becomes a meditation on one of the oldest stories in human history (without wanting to give too much away: apples are a recurring motif). Upon reading The Gift Maker, the first thing that strikes you is the setting: how familiar and yet how ‘other’ it is at the same time. People and place names sound distinctly Germanic and the city where the story opens certainly has the feel of a European city, with its mix of elegant historical and utilitarian modern architecture and hints of a turbulent political past. As the characters travel towards Grenze, the locations take that initial kernel of the fable and expand upon it, with Grenze itself reading a little like Sodom & Gomorrah decided to relocate to Bedford Falls. Situations become increasingly surreal and are played straight for their allegorical, metaphorical and philosophical significance. In Mayes’s author biography, it lists two of his influences being Kafka & Christopher Priest and this definitely comes across (this reader also saw shades of Murakami).
This is a very philosophical book – it’s central theme is the nature of free will – the huge burden it is to be responsible for the consequences of our actions but how, without it, life loses meaning – and its relationship with self-identity – but it wears its erudition lightly. For all the narrative’s complexity, the conclusion it reaches is surprisingly simple, sweet and endearing. I will readily and cheerfully admit that I probably didn’t get all the references or completely understand the significance of some of the plot developments, but – much like a Murakami novel – it feels as though the pieces are almost at the point of being put together and that further readings will unlock the answers. And sometimes, just feeling like you’re on the cusp of knowledge is the best place to be. This is a story where the journey is just as important as the conclusion, if not more so.
Lastly, whilst it’s true that a book should be judged by its cover, it should be noted that, as well as being beautifully written, The Gift Maker is also a beautifully designed book. From the ethereal front cover with its muted blue and violet tones, to the butterflies adorning the page corners and chapter headings. The butterfly is a symbol that in many mythologies has spiritual connotations: in Japanese mythology, for instance, they are a symbol of eternity and the manifestation of the human soul – an appropriate motif for a book with these themes. And so, whilst they crop up quite late in the story itself, this design feature means they’re present in the reader’s consciousness.
The Gift Maker is a slow burner but once the story gets going it will pull you along inexorably in its wake. A book well deserving of the rave reviews it’s been receiving, of which there is now one more.