Book review: Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War by Ian Buruma

February 18, 2016
Atlantic, £18.99

Ian Buruma’s varied education (Chinese literature at Leiden and Japanese film at Nihon) expanded into an eclectic bibliography. A Dutch man of letters and scholar of Japanese culture and Chinese history, his books have covered topics ranging from Anglomania in Europe to Japanese tattooing and the murder of Theo Van Gogh.

His contributions to the New York Review of Books, often from a stance of classical liberalism, have won him an appreciative audience that was strengthened by the recent publication of Year Zero, a study of the global change wrought by the events of 1945.

In Their Promised Land, Buruma returns home—or rather to his grandparents’ home: the “childhood idyll” in Berkshire, England where Bernard and Win Schlesinger (parents of the filmmaker John, Buruma’s uncle) lived much of their married life. The couple were assimilated German Jews who maintained certain aspects of their background, yet some things remained “too Jewish” for their tastes. Buruma’s book, a family history constructed from his grandparents’ love letters, is a vision of a faded civilisation.

There is a gentler presence here than even the book’s benign subjects: Buruma himself. Describing a picture of Win at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, he writes, “she had dark rings around her eyes, suggesting sleeplessness.” He glosses her thoughtful conservative remarks about pornography as “not… unreasonable.” These mellow annotations, indicative of the book’s soft-hearted tone, suggest that Buruma’s childhood idyll proved too cherished a subject for his usual acumen.