I give David Gillham credit for a mostly good outing in telling this story of a German woman's growing resistance to Nazism from that woman's perspect...more I give David Gillham credit for a mostly good outing in telling this story of a German woman's growing resistance to Nazism from that woman's perspective. In many ways, he did a good job.
I liked the development of the relationship between the anti-Nazi activist Ericha and the main character, "kriegsfrau" Sigrid.
Loved the gobs and gobs of German in-speak, atmosphere, and war trivia. Other reviewers have mentioned this stellar aspect of the book. Historical fiction that is very well researched is such a pleasure to read. As others have noted, you could smell and taste the airless Berlin of 1943.
Loved the half-Jewish Nazis next door, the pregnant Frau Obersturmfuhrer and her lesbian sister, Carin. In fact, Carin was one of the best-realized characters in the book. She was both sarcastic and warm, wise-cracking and deep, funny and sad. I'm usually quite critical of male authors' depictions of lesbian women, so this characterization was a treat. There were few other minor characters as well imagined: Frau Weiss and her children were somewhat believable (though idealized), but all the other U-boats were complete stereotypes, as were the building superintendent & wife, other residents, Sigrid's boss, etc., bellicose Nazis right down to their grey teeth.
I was disappointed that Sigrid's mother-in-law was so entirely one-dimensional. It made her completely predictable. I hoped that the evolving circumstances of the novel would somehow impact her witless bitchiness and relentless pro-Nazi attitudes, but the author missed the opportunity to develop this character at all. No matter that her son was essentially destroyed by his part in the war, even confronted with that and his suicidal return to the Eastern front ... nope, sorry, she was the same at the end of the book as at the beginning. There's no way I can buy that an unemployed nosy woman at home in the Berlin apartment day and night could *miss* Sigrid's activities completely. She found Sigrid's love letters, after all, so we know she was prying. But her occasional suspicions essentially are couched in her dislike of Sigrid rather than any apprehension of her anti-Nazi activism.
In many ways, I found Caspar, Sigrid's soldier husband, the most coherent character in the book. He was an earnest civil servant kind of guy who is drafted, is completely unfit as a soldier but does his best with a bad situation. His identity and character are destroyed by the chaotic violence of the Eastern front. After being wounded, Caspar tries to return to his life, realizes the impossibility of that, and returns to die. He was exceedingly well-drawn and sadly, all too comprehensible.
Sigrid herself was difficult to understand and identify with. At first, in the turmoil of living in war-torn Berlin, she is consumed with thoughts of her love affair with Egon and focuses on memories of her emotional/sexual tie with him to remove her from her brutal day-to-day existence. I could imagine such thoughts as a good escape valve. However, as the book goes on, I often felt that I didn't know her or understand her motivations, even though we read her first-person account. I was left feeling that, while Sigrid tells us her *actions,* she never really thinks very much, aside from obsessive musing on her sexual encounters with men. For example, Sigrid never says to herself -- Egon is a good and upright person who doesn't deserve the treatment that he receives from the Nazi government -- I believe this to the extent that I will endanger myself to save unfairly targeted Jews. Or -- my beloved nurse was a Jew... Or -- my best friend in elementary school was a Jew... Her motivation for endangering herself is unclear and unconvincing (although we are probably supposed to extrapolate it from the relationship with Egon).
I'm sorry, Mr. Gillham, almost every woman that I know obsesses on her relationship with her beloved one and its meaning, NOT on her sex acts with that person. I still would have given this book 5 stars, despite all the titillating sex scenes, except for ... (view spoiler)[ the rape. When Egon rapes Sigrid out of rage, shoving her against a wall and telling her to "Take. This. Back to her marital bed..." I almost closed the book. This, in my view, is where the author really failed to comprehend his main character, as a woman. Being violently raped by a loved one is the ultimate betrayal -- in which you as a person are reduced to a receptacle for another's rage -- well, it would be something that, at the VERY LEAST, Sigrid would dwell on for the remainder of the book and it would certainly color, perhaps destroy, her love for Egon. Instead, Sigrid relates the incident matter-of-factly and continues to worship Egon, scan the streets for a glimpse of him, review their other sexual encounters, etc., etc., etc. (hide spoiler)] Without this incident, I thought the complexity of Egon's character was well-depicted, as a targeted minority pushed to the wall to try and survive, as a man deeply injured by grief, loss, and societal wrongs.
With other reviewers, I failed to understand the meaning of Sigrid's affair with Wolfram, the war-injured brother of her neighbors. If I were cynical, I'd say it was an opportunity for many more sexy bodice-ripping scenes in sleazy hotels. It's hard to believe that we're supposed to imagine that Sigrid was planning for the denouement, way back in that relatively early section of the book -- when she'd barely become involved with the anti-Nazi underground. I suppose we're intended to think that Wolfram is a consolation prize, since Egon is unavailable. I don't know (as a lesbian) if heterosexual women are usually enticed by strangers presenting their hard-ons to them in stairwells, but I find it hard to believe that they are.
What I think that the author was probably attempting to do was to debunk the common stereotypes of virgin/whore and depict Sigrid as a passionate woman who doesn't shrink from seeking solace in her sexual relationships with men. It was a good attempt and Sigrid was a woman who did develop a sense of her own authority and acted on it in the climactic final scenes -- fast-paced and suspenseful -- her actions were believable and admirable. It's just her inner life and emotions that didn't persuade.
Oh, yeah, minor but distracting point: Gillham thanks his editor in the acknowledgments -- and she really did NOT deserve the praise. There were half-a-dozen or more lapses of continuity and flat-out mistakes in the book that were so glaring that I started keeping track. At one point, Sigrid finds a dirty playing card that depicts someone she knows -- later on, it's termed a "postcard" -- very different. Just one of too many such errors. Glad you liked your editor, Mr. Gillham, but in future, I'd find someone with actual skills so that you don't torment your readers to this extent again!
I loved this book and it was a page-turner. I couldn't put it down. I have been reading about the Holocaust for 40 years and thus, not much in it surp...moreI loved this book and it was a page-turner. I couldn't put it down. I have been reading about the Holocaust for 40 years and thus, not much in it surprised me, in terms of the conditions, French complicity, man's inhumanity to man, etc. Yet, I felt this book added a few crucial items to the literature. For one thing, Sarah's fear and lack of comprehension of what was happening were very well expressed. She was an extremely believable 10 year old. Several others complained that no one would dream of locking her brother in a cupboard when rounded up by the police -- well, those persons have the benefit of hindsight. Again and again, the author pointed out that it was not NAZIs rounding up these Jews, it was French policemen. Those very gendarmes who were the friends and neighbors of the people in question. If it would me, I could not conceive that, having been taken away by the police, I would not be allowed to return home the same day. Even adults struggled with belief in those days. The terrible oppressive conditions were so unprecedented that people could not absorb their new reality. And, other books have pointed out, the German people specifically were known across Europe for their humanity and progressiveness -- the people of Goethe! Thus, I could well believe that Sarah could lock her brother in a cupboard and not realize the tragic possible outcome.
I especially loved Sarah's questions about anti-semitism, and her expressed feelings throughout the book: she was hot, tired, thirsty, exhausted, betrayed, angry, terrified at her mother's withdrawal, she couldn't resist trying to help the other little abandoned children, she had a stitch in her side, she was buried under potatoes and frozen -- even after the loss of her friend Rachel, with whom she escaped, her feelings were right on the money. She mentions her just one time, and then moves on -- she is in survival mode and she can't be weighed down with potentially fatal regrets. In survivor narratives, often these very feelings are what are missing. Those survivors have been so cauterized that their feelings either no longer exist or are too dangerous to express. I felt everything through Sarah.
My quibbles: I found the parallel story about Julia less interesting. I didn't sympathize with many of her points of view. She seemed to hold on to Bertrand her husband merely because he's good in bed and visually "hot," which I found suspect. Few women would be swayed beyond a year based on these characteristics and, in every other way, he was a self-centered cad. Also, it was never clear to me just why Julia would have needed to pursue the story of Sarah for extended years of research. What did Julia need to discover -- and why intrude on the lives of Sarah's husband, son, etc? Maybe I just don't get it because I'm not a journalist!
Another quibble: I wondered that Sarah remained so wounded, despite the love of her rescuers Genevieve and Jules and their family. I feel that a 10 year old who found a loving family would probably recover more, even from the huge losses she suffered, and not end up the way she did. I didn't believe that she would cut off contact with her rescuers, once she left France -- why? And why would she never tell her husband and son about her past? And why would they accept her refusal to do so? I believe in the healing power of Love and I feel the book falls short here.
I believe English is not the author's first language, and I thought others' reviews that called the writing "simplistic" were rather harsh.
Though it was not filled with "surprise" turns of events, I found the story very involving. I thought that this would be a very good basic book about the Holocaust for readers just approaching the subject. The movie with Kristin Scott Thomas and Melusine Mayance was also a faithful and fantastic adaptation!
I didn't expect to learn anything new, or even to be touched very deeply by this book (being that I know the subject matter so thoroughly -- having re...moreI didn't expect to learn anything new, or even to be touched very deeply by this book (being that I know the subject matter so thoroughly -- having read the diary many times, and otherwise immersed myself in background material for the last 42 years). I was wrong. Somehow, the drawings of the familiar photographs renewed their emotional impact for me. Somehow, the drawings of the photographs of Nazi criminals, and the other instances of historical information and context, made it much more personal and real.
There are images that will definitely stick with me -- the two sisters, Anne & Margot, about ages 2 and 5, in their white singlets with innocent eyes gazing up at their beloved father. In the drawing, the carelessly drooping strap has been restored to Anne's shoulder. So poignant and heart-wrenching--that these adjustments and fixes may be made to images, but that the life itself was so brutally crushed out of two little girls (and countless others). The image of Anne affixing her photos of "film stars" to the wall in her tiny room, palm emphatically flat to the surface, exerting her will.
The book pointed out that the Secret Annex was barely 700 square feet in total, housing 8 people. Anne's room, shared with Mr. Dussel, and Anne's parents' room, shared with Margot, were each 6' wide. Reading those facts caused my blood to freeze -- imagine the sense of being trapped in these tiny spaces with so many others!
A very worthwhile read and I probably will need to own this book, someday. (less)
The woman herself seemed incredibly courageous, determined, and clear about what was necessary for freedom -- and she was ready to contribute her own...moreThe woman herself seemed incredibly courageous, determined, and clear about what was necessary for freedom -- and she was ready to contribute her own life to the struggle. She remained to the end faithful to her belief system. Even when confronting her parents in the hour before her execution, she was calm and reconciled. And her brother's final shout as the guillotine fell was "Long live freedom!" Moving and inspiring.
I didn't find McDonough's writing very passionate or engaging, unfortunately. He clearly was passionate about the story he was telling, but was not a writer who caught me up in the emotion of the events. The prose was too distant and dry for that. I did like McDonough's final chapter in which he related his pilgrimages to the places in Sophie's life. He brought himself into the tale more and that was somewhat moving, but he's not a great communicator, sadly. Also, as I mentioned in comments, the copy I had contained a distracting number of grammatical errors and word switches which ended up affecting the meaning in probably a dozen passages. I had a copy from an academic press from the university library -- must have been uncorrected. McDonough's tepid style and the grammatical issues kept this book from receiving a higher rating from me. I look forward to reading other books about Sophie Scholl, however! (less)