Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Received audiobook download for review from publisher
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful debut novel, perfect for fans of Sarah’s Key and All the Light We Cannot See, the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.
In 1939 before everything changed, Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. Her family moved in Berlin’s highest social circles, admired by friends and neighbors. Eleven-year-old Hannah was often taken by her mother for an afternoon treat at the tea room of the beautiful Adlon Hotel, both dressed in their finest clothes. She spent her afternoons at the park with her best friend Leo Martin.
But, in an instant, that sunlit world vanished. Now the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; their fine possessions are hauled away, and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. The two friends make a pact: come what may, they promise to have a future together.
As Hannah and Leo’s families desperately begin to search for a means of escape, a glimmer of hope appears when they discover the Saint Louis, a transatlantic liner that can give Jews safe passage to Cuba. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart from Hamburg on the luxurious passenger liner bound for Havana. Life aboard the ship is a welcome respite from the gloom of Berlin—filled with masquerade balls, dancing, and exquisite meals every night.
As the passengers gain renewed hope for a bright future ahead, love between Hannah and Leo blossoms. But soon reports from the outside world began to filter in, and dark news overshadows the celebratory atmosphere on the ship; the governments of Cuba, the United States, and Canada are denying the passengers of the St. Louis admittance to their countries, forcing them to return to Europe as it descends into the Second World War. The ship that had seemed their salvation seems likely to become their death sentence.
After four days anchored at bay, only a handful of passengers are allowed to disembark onto Cuban soil, and Hannah and Leo must face the grim reality that they could be torn apart. Their future is unknown, and their only choice will have an impact in generations to come.
Decades later in New York City on her eleventh birthday, Anna Rosen receives a mysterious envelope from Hannah, a great-aunt she has never met but who raised her deceased father. In an attempt to piece together her father’s mysterious past, Anna and her mother travel to Havana to meet Hannah, who is turning eighty-seven years old. Hannah reveals old family ties, recounts her journey aboard the Saint Louis and, for the first time, reveals what happened to her father and Leo. Bringing together the pain of the past with the mysteries of the present, Hannah gives young Anna a sense of their shared histories, forever intertwining their lives, honoring those they loved and cruelly lost.
Like many historical fiction readers I have enjoyed my fair share of novels set during WWII; there are so many on the market that it is difficult to not run into one. What I loved about the premise of The German Girl is it takes the reader somewhere new and explores an oft overlooked event during the early days of the war. This is not a novel that will feel familiar or a rehash of events that you have read before, but it will pull at your heartstrings.
The story is told through a dual narrative – sort of. There are two distinct timelines: that beginning in 1939 and following Hannah Rosenthal and also that of Anna Rosen in 2014. These two timelines do come together in 2014, and it is early on when Anna meets her great-aunt Hannah, and then we get the story from 1939 forward as Hannah tells Anna and her mother the story of how she fled Germany in the early days of the war. I was certainly more committed to the 1939 story line. This was the fascinating and new part for me. I had never heard of the Saint Louis and the plight of the passengers who had fled Nazi Germany aboard it only to find extreme difficulty upon arriving in Havana, Cuba. The 2014 storyline and references to events during Anna’s life during the 2000s really held no interest for me. Because of this, I found the earliest chapters a little bit of a slog because I didn’t really care about Anna, her mother, or how her father died. I think that the novel could have held its own just fine being told only from the historical storyline without the distractions of the present. That being said, I do understand why the author chose to include the present-day narrative: it allowed him to draw character parallels between Anna now who is learning what happened to her family and Hannah then at the time the events were transpiring as she was the same age as Anna is now. And that worked just fine.
The historical narrative can be divided into three distinct segments: Berlin, the trans-Atlantic crossing aboard the Saint Louis, and then Cuba. The part set in Berlin gives the reader a perspective of what life had been like before the Nazi regime took over as Hannah describes the life her glamorous mother had led. You also witness events like Kristallnacht through the eyes of a young girl who doesn’t understand at all what is going on. I don’t believe she ever uttered the word “Nazi” and instead calls them “the ogres” when describing what was happening. All of this escalating terror and destruction is juxtaposed against childhood fancies and games, such as hiding outside a man’s window to listen to the radio and running around with her friend, Leo. It gave it all a sort of surreal perspective. The same can be said about the experience aboard the Saint Louis. The passengers viewed it as a successful escape from the clutches of the Nazi and both children and the adults thoroughly enjoyed their voyage, until they reached Cuba to find out very, very few of them would actually be disembarking the ship – among them Hannah and her mother. Cuba takes a decidedly depressing turn as the family struggles to figure out what has happened to their family and friends and decide what to do in this country that doesn’t want them and in which they do not want to be. We also witness Cuba later in the throws of its revolution and Hannah draws uncomfortable parallels between it and what they lived through it Germany.
This was a fantastically written novel. Even with my misgivings about the present storyline being a little superfluous I would enthusiastically recommend this book to any historical fiction or WWII fan. You will love the characters and the passion for the subject shines through the writing. It will open your eyes to niche experiences beyond the typical stories of WWII. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that I think that this could certainly be a novel read by young adults; it is something I would have read if it was available when I was 12-15. The two girls through much of the narrative are young teens that many could relate to. The material is heavy at points, so as a parent you might want to decide for yourself if it is something your child should read, but there are no violent scenes, romance/sex, or foul language (there might be one scene where someone is beat up during the Berlin portion, but I can’t remember if it was onscreen or off, and there is a scene during the rebellion in Cuba, but either way it isn’t graphic).
One of the things that I always note is how well the narrator pronounces phrases when there is foreign language used throughout a novel. As one might expect, there is German in this novel, but also Spanish as they spend extensive time in Cuba, as well as French. While I know very little German and am far from fluent in Spanish or French, I feel that the narrator handled these segments well. They sounded good to my ear and enhanced my enjoyment of listening to a book and made it feel more accurate (because let’s face it, if I was reading the print version I would have butchered those parts in my head). Ultimately I think I would have appreciated having 2 narrators, one for Anna and another for Hannah, just to make it easier to differentiate the two in case you do not stop at a chapter header. The pace of the reading was very even, however it sometimes bordered on being too slow and I felt the need for the pace to be picked up. The narration overall, however, is strong.
You can get a feel for this audiobook by checking out this excerpt from the production.
Reviews of this book by other bloggers:
Copyright © 2016 by The Maiden’s Court