Lake Union | 2019 (1 August) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1989 and, as the Berlin Wall falls, Miriam Winter cares for her dying father Henryk. She knows so little about him. They’ve been apart for years but now she begins to learn of his past. He cries out for someone called Frieda, while Miriam discovers an Auschwitz number tattooed on his wrist, hidden by his watch strap. While searching for further clues, Miriam finds an inmate uniform from Ravensbrück concentration camp and, sewn into its seams, are letters to Henryk written by Frieda. The letters reveal something of Frieda’s past with Henryk but they also record the truth about the ‘Rabbit Girls’, women who were mercilessly experimented upon in the camp. Miriam’s own life has stalled. She needs to escape from her own past and it is Frieda, speaking though so many years, who inspires Miriam to strive to be free.
The Rabbit Girls is largely told in Miriam’s own words and it’s her we grow to know the most. Despite the momentous events happening outside the house – the fall of the Wall – Miriam is withdrawn and consumed by her past while fearful for her father. She barely knows him but she cannot let him go. She hangs on to him, barely leaving the house. Miriam is a tormented soul and the prose reflects this. At times lyrical, at other times disjointed, it epitomises Miriam’s damaged spirit.
I think that the reader’s response to the novel will depend on his or her reaction to Miriam and her voice. To me, at times, it felt rather too ‘floaty’ and self-absorbed, and I didn’t especially warm to her. However, I did warm to Frieda, whose letters are scattered throughout the novel. Her voice is distinct, focused, coping with the most terrible cruelty, holding other people’s lives together, sometimes literally holding them up. I am relieved that the Ravensbrück scenes are confined to the letters because what happens to the Rabbit Girls is too much to deal with. It’s very upsetting as indeed it should be. But through the darkness there is a light about Frieda that inspires.
Henryk’s voice is also heard through his patchy reminiscences from his sick bed. I wasn’t totally convinced by his relationships with Frieda (or with his wife). His own experiences in Auschwitz are briefly dealt with. Again, the focus of our attention and feeling is on Frieda.
The Rabbit Girls is a moving, emotional read in some ways, especially when we come across each of Frieda’s letters. I didn’t engage as much with Miriam or Henryk, and the novel’s present day seems strangely more vague than the past it recalls, despite the events taking place in Berlin in 1989. But Frieda is not a character to forget in a hurry and her story, and that of the Rabbit Girls, serves as a vital reminder of what must never be forgotten.