I seem to be on a bit of role with WWII fiction, and have to admit that I was wholly unprepared for the experience of this novel and the horrors of history repeating itself once again in our current global climate. Another amazing read that I hope will lend a human touch to the current refugee crisis.
Title: The German Girl
Author: Armando Lucas Correa
Publisher: Atria Paperback/ Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Original Publication Date: October 16, 2016
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Themes: WWII, Nazi Germany, Holocaust, Refugee Settlement, Religious Persecution
Features: Bibliography, Historical photographs and documents
My Rating: 4/ 5
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel, perfect for fans of The Nightingale, Schindler’s List, and All the Light We Cannot See, about twelve-year-old Hannah Rosenthal’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.
Before everything changed, young Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. But now, in 1939, the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; her family’s fine possessions are hauled away; and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. Hannah and her best friend, Leo Martin, make a pact: whatever the future has in store for them, they’ll meet it together.
Hope appears in the form of the SS St. Louis, a transatlantic liner offering Jews safe passage out of Germany. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart on the luxurious ship bound for Havana. Life on board the St. Louis is like a surreal holiday for the refugees, with masquerade balls, exquisite meals, and polite, respectful service. But soon ominous rumors from Cuba undermine the passengers’ fragile sense of safety. From one day to the next, impossible choices are offered, unthinkable sacrifices are made, and the ship that once was their salvation seems likely to become their doom.
Seven decades later in New York City, on her twelfth birthday, Anna Rosen receives a strange package from an unknown relative in Cuba, her great-aunt Hannah. Its contents will inspire Anna and her mother to travel to Havana to learn the truth about their family’s mysterious and tragic past, a quest that will help Anna understand her place and her purpose in the world.
The German Girl sweeps from Berlin at the brink of the Second World War to Cuba on the cusp of revolution, to New York in the wake of September 11, before reaching its deeply moving conclusion in the tumult of present-day Havana. Based on a true story, this masterful novel gives voice to the joys and sorrows of generations of exiles, forever seeking a place called home.
Initially, I made note that this book was slow to start and it was only after getting well through Part 2 that I realized that it wasn’t the book that was slow – it was me. There is no way around it, but dealing with several wars and multiple instances of religious subjugation in a single novel is some pretty heavy reading. It was taking me a lot longer to digest the information that I anticipated and I was getting frustrated with my unusually slow reading pace. However, once I adjusted to the tone and tempo of Correa’s writing, I quickly discovered that it was nearly impossible to set The German Girl Down.
Correa’s attention to every little detail, from research and historical accuracy to make up and architecture, establishes an unshakable sense of time, place, and public atmosphere. I couldn’t help but feel the fear, hopelessness, and ever closing oppression experienced by the Rosenthal family, and Hannah’s overwhelming confusion as to why her family was being treated in such a way.
Seeing these events through the eyes of a child served to soften the mood, added snippets of humour, and offered glimpses of hope for the future when it seemed like all hope was irrecoverably lost. I loved the infusion of childish imagination, the labeling of various oppressors as Ogres, and (most importantly) the love and adoration with which Hannah and Anna view their parents. Seriously though, I have some of my grandmother’s gowns from 40s and Correa’s elegant descriptions of The Goddess really made me want to go and play some serious adult dress up! I could picture each person, their clothing, and every detail of the setting so clearly with every scene. His writing was some beautiful food for the imagination, and I was happy to let mine run wild.
It took some time for the alternating narration and jumping through eras to come together, but the effect was that of continual threads spanning across generations to create a single, unified story. The continuous repetition of key details, events and behaviours helped to pull the two girls stories together, and left me hungry to see what each minute detail would mean in the future. This is not a book that can be read casually, or with a movie running in the background, it demands your attention (and all of it) because missing the littlest of details will leave you lost and wondering in the future.
Some have argued that ending is too melodramatic, and in my first draft of this review I even agreed. But, in letting the book as a whole sink in, I actually rather like it – every detail has a meaning and purpose, and the drama befits history and essence of the Rosenthal/ Strauss family. The only complaint that I have with how this book ends is that I NEED to know the stories of those who remained on the St. Louis.
The most important part of this experience, however, is that I learned something new. As a Canadian, I never knew that our government had been one of the many that turned the St. Louis away. Interestingly enough, I was taught in school about Cuba and U.S.A. refusing the ship, but never about Canada’s contribution in returning over 900 souls to a nation on the brink of genocide. The German Girl, while fiction, served as a necessary reminder that true History isn’t just the official version written in text books, but that is those memories and experiences that our leaders and governments would specifically like us to forget.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. But there is some real grit between the pages, so I might not suggest it to someone looking for a quick and happy read. The German Girl is beautiful, haunting, and devastatingly realistic. Wrapped up in nostalgia, enduring friendships and heartbreak Correa’s debut novel is a not-so-subtle remained that we have to pay attention to the past in order to avoid repeating it – and it is definitely worth a read!
Up Next: Brave New Girl by Rachel Vincent