Historical fiction about twins on either side of a war
Content warning: child abuse
This book is one of the rare occasions where I saw the movie (or at least part of it) before I read the book. When I saw a copy in the translated literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair, I thought I would see how it compared.
“The Twins” by Tessa de Loo and translated by Ruth Levitt is a Dutch novel about twin sisters Anna and Lotte who, upon their father’s death, are separated from one another. Lotte, recovering from tuberculosis, is sent to live with progressive and educated family in the better climate of the Netherlands. However Anna, naturally more robust, is kept in Germany with much poorer relatives to help them with their farm. Living through either side of the war and apart almost 70 years, the sisters meet by chance as old women at a health resort in Spa. With so much between them to catch up on, both wonder if they can ever bridge the divide.
I think that the premise of this story is an interesting one, and the sisters are a clever way to explore the nuance and different perspectives of the war. Although Anna grows up among Nazis, she is at a significant disadvantage in other ways to Lotte including suffering physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of her aunt and uncle. Lotte’s ability to influence politics is, accordingly, extremely limited and de Loo uses her perspective to explore the idea that it is the collective, rather than individuals, who are responsible for travesties such as World War II.
While this is an interesting and stimulating premise, unfortunately this book suffered when it came to readability. The rigid structure of the two sisters taking turns to recount parts of their lives felt artificial, and the stories dragged. As it is translated from Dutch, it is hard to say whether it is a better read in its original language. I found Anna’s story more compelling than Lotte’s, but both were a bit of a slog. I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that this book is sympathetic to the Nazis. Rather, it sheds a light on some of the economic drivers behind fascist ideology. However, I did feel like it was written in a way to be more sympathetic towards Anna’s German perspective.
A challenging read with a unique concept, but ultimately I think the film was better.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and this is actually my second review of a book by Rhys Bowen.
“The Tuscan Child” by Rhys Bowen is a historical fiction novel that spans and interlaces two eras: World War II and the 1970s. In 1944, a British pilot shot down by the Germans makes an emergency landing in a small Tuscan village. Hiding out in a bombed and abandoned monastery, Hugo relies on the generosity of local woman Sophia to survive. Thirty years later, Joanna has returned to the sad remains of her family’s lost manor to arrange her father’s funeral. While going through his things, she discovers hints of a love left behind in Italy. Joanna decides to try to learn more about her mysterious father’s past and travel to Tuscany herself.
Bowen’s strength is clearly in recounting World War II history and, like her novel “In Farleigh Field”, she excels at capturing the decline of the English country house. The tension between the shame and the inevitability of the loss of the family home is explored in a really interesting way, and I found the Joanna’s interactions with the principal of the girls’ school that took over Langley Hall especially fascinating.
The parts of the book set in Tuscany had a very different flavour. Although we don’t see much of the Tuscan countryside through Hugo’s eyes, the his relationship with Sophia is incredibly intense. When Joanna arrives in the village, I felt like although she quickly becomes immersed, her experience in is much less internal and the reader gets to enjoy a broader sense of Tuscan life and culture (inspired by Bowen’s own experiences).
However, there really are two very different stories in this book: Joanna’s sad and difficult English experience, and the much more mysterious Tuscan story of her father’s. While this divide is appropriate given the divide within Hugo himself, I think at times the transition between the two stories is a bit difficult to bridge.
Whether you are interested in romance, historical fiction, World War II or travel writing, I think most people will get something out of this story.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and unfortunately due to some technological issues, I actually thought I wasn’t going to be able to read it at all. Luckily, when I went to collect another book from NetGalley, I saw that it was available again and I pounced on it. This book was actually a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 for best historical fiction so I was even more excited to read it.
“Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan is a historical fiction novel which is heavily inspired by true events experienced by a real person in Milan, Italy during World War II. Pino Lella, a happy-go-lucky 17 year old boy, is sent to live in the Alps after his hometown of Milan is bombed by the Allies. Staying in a Catholic boys’ school, he is enlisted by the priest to assist Jewish people escaping Italy via an underground railroad by guiding them through the treacherous winter mountains. However, despite the heroism of his early involvement, when Pino comes of age his parents insist for his safety that he enlists with the German forces. Disgusted by having to swap sides, Pino jumps at the chance to work for Hitler’s “left hand” and spy for the Allies. This new role is fraught with danger and Pino finds himself risking many important relationships, including his blossoming love with the beautiful Anna.
As the saying goes, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and this is, without a doubt a good story. I felt haunted by this book for a good week after I read it. I found myself going back to it to reread certain passages trying to find answers and going over and over the events in my mind. Sullivan makes it abundantly clear at the beginning of this book that this book is not intended to be a biography, and that much of the story has been heavily fictionalised, speculated upon and perhaps even embellished. I don’t even care. It’s a fast-paced, exhilarating read and I got much more out of this book set in Italy during the war than I did out of “My Brilliant Friend” set only a short time afterwards.
Probably the biggest criticism some may have of this book is that the writing, while perfectly serviceable, is not especially literary in tone. Some may find it a bit simplistic but I personally found the tone perfectly in keeping with Pino’s youth and naivete. Even though he is involved in very serious and adult issues, ultimately Pino is still a very young man and I think that the writing style actually suits the narrative.
This is an emotionally charged, exciting and intriguing book and if even half of it is true it’s an absolutely incredible story. A solid story that still makes my heart wrench thinking about it.
I received a copy of this book from the author.
“A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other” by Ralph Webster is a biography/autobiography about his father Jerry Webster, originally named Gerhard Wobser. The book is divided into two parts: Jerry’s recollections about the rise of Nazis during his childhood in what was then East Prussia, and his son Ralph’s observations about Jerry at the end of his life. Jerry was born in what is now Poland in 1922 to a reasonably well-to-do family. He had three much older sisters and was the treasured son of aging parents who at times felt isolated from his siblings due to the age difference. As anti-Jewish sentiment grows in the region, the Wobsers, who are all baptised Lutherans, find themselves targeted for a heritage mostly forgotten.
This book was written after Webster’s travels through Europe, witnessing first-hand the “refugee crisis“. Although I have been reading quite a few stories about the children of Holocaust survivors this year, one story that I did not know much about was the story of those who tried to leave early. Although in the early days of Nazi Germany, many Jews were permitted and even encouraged to leave, lots of countries (including Australia) were reluctant to take them. With dwindling resources due to increasingly discriminatory laws, the Wobser family had to make do and send Jerry unaccompanied to England and eventually flee to China. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the reluctance of countries to take on refugees that took place then and is taking place now.
This story is written clearly with great detail, and I think captures the how slowly rights can be eroded perfectly. I liked the balance of past and present, and I think that Ralph’s own insights about his father worked well to provide a good sense of ending to a long life that had begun just before World War II. The only thing that is a bit difficult with this book is some of the earlier chapters about Jerry’s upbringing are a little repetitive, and he explains his family’s situation and structure several times over. While this helps to reiterate their situation in the beginning, it did slow the progress of the story at times.
A well-researched and well-considered book, this story is very relevant to our society today and shows that lessons can and should always be learnt from the past.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. It was actually quiet a coincidence because I got it while I was reading “Maus“, and it turns out this book complements it very well.
“The Butcher’s Daughter: a Memoir” by Florence Grende is a collection of vignettes about Florence and her family, their survival of the Holocaust by hiding in woods in East Poland and their new life in America. As a young girl stifled by their silence, Florence imagines her parents’ trauma as a beast that is always lurking within their house. It is not until she is an adult that Florence tries to learn more about her family and her people’s suffering and finds that some names and stories are lost forever.
Grende is a succinct and delicate writer who captures her experiences as a child of Holocaust survivors in bite-sized memories. She thoroughly explores the impact of her parents’ persecution on her home life and shines a light on intergenerational trauma and the effect of the war and moving to America has on her own Jewish identity. Her Mameh and Tateh are depicted as complex characters at once both stoic and vulnerable, trying to forget the unforgettable but who carry invisible (and visible) scars nonetheless.
Again, this would be an excellent companion to “Maus”. Grende provides a daughter’s perspective on her parents that is insightful and sympathetic with more of a focus on who they are rather than who they were.