Tag Archives: 20th century

The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory

Lake Union | 2019 (1 August) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rabbit Girls by Anna ElloryIt 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 Despite the momentous events happening outside the house – the fall of the Wall – Miriam is withdrawn and consumed by her past while fearful for her father.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.

Advertisements

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Picador Classics | 1990 (this edition 2013) | 554p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardIt is 1937 and the Cazalet households are preparing for their annual return to the family estate of Home Place in Sussex, where life is played out seemingly almost idyllically under the benevolent eyes of William Cazalet (the Brig) and his wife Kitty Barlow, known to everyone as Duchy. Their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, bring their wives and children to stay, while Rachel (the only daughter of the Brig and Duchy) holds the household together, waiting for the time when she can be joined by her close friend Sid.

Hugh and Edward both fought in the Great War and Hugh in particular has paid a heavy price for his service. The war clouds are gathering once more and the whole family waits to hear if Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement will win peace from Hitler. As the country prepares for war – everyone is measured up for a gasmask – Some of the children have nightmares about what war will mean. Edward and Rupert would surely have to fight. But, for now, these are the light years – it’s time to spend a summer together in the countryside while keeping one eye on the future. Everyone, including the children, has their own alliances to forge and battles to fight.

Recently I reached a stage in my reading when I really needed to try something different. You can have too much of a good thing when it comes to crime and psychological thrillers. I’ve also been reading a great deal of historical fiction behind the scenes for the HWA Gold Crown, for which I’m one of the judges. So an escape was needed and Twitter friends suggested the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which were begun in the 1990s. The family saga stretches over five substantial novels and, as I love a good saga, I gratefully dived in.

The Light Years is the first of the five novels and it sets the stage beautifully. The cast of adults, children and servants is vast (happily introduced with both a family tree and a list) and the author takes care to ensure that we spend time with them all. Even a character who plays a minor role is given a little scene or two, or more, which takes us into their world. I particularly enjoyed the time spent with the governess Miss Milliment, whose life couldn’t be more different from those of her pupils. The children are given as much time as their parents, if not more so, and, I’m very glad to say, their voices are realistically and sympathetically done. I’m not a big fan of children in fiction as a whole but I loved Polly, Clary and Louise in particular. The boys are harder to warm to as they’re off mostly, doing their own thing. I suspect they’ll play a bigger role in the later novels.

The novel moves along slowly, following the details of life at a very leisurely pace, interspersed with squabbles, stresses and disappointments, but it’s far from dull. I was completely engrossed. I became addicted to reading this book and always looked forward to picking it up each time. Them I would be immediately transported back to this beautifully crafted and remembered world. But it isn’t all sunshine, buckets and spades, and tea or gin on the lawn. This is real life being presented here and, as such, sometimes it’s unpredictable and utterly shocking. There are a couple of events that made my blood flow cold. Not everyone here is who they seem. There is danger in Eden and it’s not just Hitler who threatens it. And the characters are not at all stereotypes, despite the Upstairs Downstairs feel of some of the novel or the wealth of the characters on their country estate. Rachel, the sole daughter of the Brig and Duchy, challenges attitudes of the day in some significant ways, and the grief it causes her as she lives a life of compromise and duty is agonising.

There’s a lot going on in this book and I don’t want to go into it in any detail but I must say a few words about my favourite character – Zoë, the second wife of the youngest son, Rupert, and stepmother to his children, including the isolated Clary. Zoë appears on the surface to be empty-headed, cold and obsessed with her own beauty, with little time for the youngsters in her care. But she grows through the novel more than anyone else and I really can’t wait to see what becomes of her as she rises to meet and overcome serious and horrible obstacles. Her relationship with Clary is so beautifully explored. And, as with all of the relationships in the book, they’re given time to grow.

As soon as I started The Light Years I knew I needed more and so I instantly bought the whole series and I’m already well into the second novel, Marking Time, which takes us to September 1939 and the outbreak of war. I am so pleased to have been led to these novels and I’m looking forward to spending time with them all over the months to come. The Light Years is an absolute delight but, as Hilary Mantel commented, this is a novel (and series) far less cosy than first appears.

The historical inspiration for Stasi 77 – guest post by David Young

Stasi 77 by David YoungDavid Young’s latest novel, Stasi 77, was published by Zaffre on 18 April and it’s an absolute corker! It’s the fourth in a series set in 1970s’ East Berlin and East Germany which features police detective Major Karin Müller. I’ve loved all of them but I think that Stasi 77 is my favourite. It’s also the darkest, as the post below indicates. You can read my review here. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to present for the blog tour such a fascinating guest post by David Young in which he discusses the novel’s historical background.

The historical inspiration for Stasi 77

The clue to the year my latest novel is set in, is given in the title. Stasi 77 takes place in communist East Germany in 1977. But that’s true only up to a point – a lot of the action, and the real-life inspiration for the book, is from 32 years earlier. In the case of my protagonist, Major Karin Müller, that’s a whole lifetime ago – the year she was conceived.

What I’ve tried to do is explore the lasting effects of the Second World War on the East German state – a country that actually emerged from the aftermath of the war, and the division of a defeated Nazi Germany into zones of occupation. The Soviet zone was transformed in October 1949 into the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the German Democratic Republic – a new socialist state, but still very much at Moscow’s beck and call.

The inspiration for Stasi 77 came from a Nazi massacre – sometimes considered the worst or most senseless single-day massacre they committed – which took place in the final weeks of the war, on what was later to become East German soil. You can easily find it on the internet although I’m not mentioning its name here, and in the book I’ve deliberately placed a dedication and maps from the time amongst the back matter to try to avoid spoilers.

That’s because I’ve moved slightly out of my comfort zone, and based my sub-narrative – through the eyes of a French slave labourer for the Nazis – very much on real-life events. Everything that happens to my fictional French character up until the point of the massacre, really happened to the labour camp prisoners – although it’s an amalgamation of first and second-hand accounts of different victims and survivors.

Where the fiction starts is in my extrapolation: what would happen if one of the survivors of the massacre (and there only were a handful) came back to what had become East Germany to wreak his revenge?

So my 1977 police case, led by Volkspolizei Serious Crimes Department head Karin Müller and her deputy Werner Tilsner, is pure fiction, bolted onto thinly-disguised fact.

I thought long and hard about the ethics of this. Should you create what is meant to be commercial fiction out of a horrific real-life event? In the end, I concluded that anything that serves to raise the profile of the massacre and its memorial site must be a good thing. If I’m wrong, I apologise.

The other thing I was interested in was what happened to Nazis in East Germany. The socialist state was avowedly ‘anti-fascist’: the Berlin Wall was even officially called ‘The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ (or Barrier). A euphemism, of course, and few if any of the GDR’s citizens really believed it existed to keep fascists out, rather than imprison the state’s own population.

But did members of the Nazi party just disappear into thin air in the east, or become communists overnight? In Stasi 77, some of my Nazis become members of the East German secret police, the Stasi. And despite the fictional nature of the 1970s end of the story, the idea of Nazis being recruited in this way is rooted in reality. For example, Der Spiegel in 2014 published research about Auschwitz SS guard Josef Settnik and how the Stasi made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: his past in the SS would be forgotten if he cooperated with the Ministry for State Security and spied on members of his own Catholic community. There are several other examples. The article quotes Henry Leide of the Rostock branch of the Federal Commissioner for the documents of the State Security Service of the GDR as saying: ‘Nazi perpetrators had a great opportunity in the GDR to get away scot-free if they behaved inconspicuously or cooperated.’

At the end of the day, though, the novel is a piece of fiction. It’s also meant to be entertainment, despite its sometimes grim contents. My hope is that if readers are moved by it, they might seek out the real history for themselves. Or indeed include the Memorial at the massacre site on any trips to Germany, in order to pay their respects to the dead.

In these difficult political times in the UK, history is an excellent tutor of what can happen if intolerance, xenophobia and hatred are allowed to flourish.

Reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State
Stasi 77

For other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.

Stasi Blog Tour Graphic

Stasi 77 by David Young

Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 377p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi 77 by David YoungEast German police detective Major Karin Müller is enjoying a rare holiday beside the Black Sea with her grandmother and her little twins when she is urgently called back to East Berlin. A senior official in the secret police, the Stasi, has been murdered, killed by fire. Müller and her partner Tilsner search for the reasons for the murder in the dead man’s past but it’s soon clear that the Stasi will not allow her to ask the questions she must. She is removed from the case. And then another important and influential man is killed in a fire. When Müller digs into this one, she comes up against the Stasi once more. This is a pattern that can only lead to trouble.

It doesn’t help that Tilsner seems disinterested and distracted. He’s blaming it on personal problems but Karin’s not so sure. Despite their closeness, she’s had reason to suspect his loyalty before. She’s now convinced that he’s not to be trusted. More than ever before, Karin feels alone as she strives to discover the truth but what she reveals, at great personal risk to herself, is more shocking and terrible than she could have ever imagined. And somebody wants these secrets to stay dead, whatever the cost.

Stasi 77 is the fourth novel by David Young to feature the investigations of Karin Müller, a detective in the East German People’s Police during the 1970s. I’ve loved each one of these books but Stasi 77 is, I think, nigh on perfect. It is certainly my favourite of the four and is a novel that the author should be very proud of.

The book immerses the reader in this communist East German world, with its expectations and disappointments, its pride and confidence, its cars and bad coffee, its nights illicitly spent in front of the latest West German drama on the TV, the nosiness of spies absolutely everywhere, the interference of the State. David Young knows this world inside out. This is historical fiction (as well as crime fiction) of the highest order. It might be only forty years ago but this is a foreign place for sure and all of the little details build up the novel’s strong sense of authenticity. He has also created a thoroughly believable main character in Karin Müller. She genuinely believes in this Soviet-led socialist society even though she, more than almost anyone, is exposed to its failings. Karin holds on to the ideal, where every person has their place and is looked after, with everyone working for the benefit of others. She’s even prepared to put up with the Stasi. But that might be about to change. Karin’s relationship with the Stasi is fascinating as characters emerge from the shadows with ominous regularity, only then to fade away once more. But how can she put up with this, particularly when her own children become pawns in their game? It is absolutely fascinating.

But there’s another world that rears its monstrous head in Stasi 77 and that’s the country’s Nazi past. A wartime tale threads its way through the narrative. Atrocities are committed and suffered. They must not be forgotten. There are some harrowing scenes in Stasi 77 but they are very sensitively portrayed. They're all the more shocking because much of it is based on real events. The author will be writing about this in a guest post on For Winter Nights in a day or two. I urge you to read the novel to learn more.

I've become very fond of Karin Müller through these novels and in Stasi 77 she demands genuine respect and admiration for her dogged pursuit of the truth. The way that she has to combine career with motherhood is a key theme. Fortunately, she has an incredible, long-suffering grandmother to help out. We see how much of what Karin has is dependent on her job, including her apartment. She could lose everything at any time. Karin’s used to looking over her shoulder, searching for her Stasi shadow. They’re there more than ever in Stasi 77 and it’s time for us to learn much more about those in their pay. Müller will have to re-examine many of the relationships in her life.

Stasi 77 is undoubtedly the darkest of the four novels but it is, in my opinion, the best so far. I could not put it down. You might get more from it if you’ve read the previous novels – and I’d certainly suggest that you do – but this novel stands alone very well. It’s striking, powerful and embedded in its historical setting and place. It will be very interesting indeed to see where Karin Müller can go from here.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Headline Review | 2019 (21 February) | 406p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Gown by Jennifer RobsonIt is 1947 and the people of London, like those living in the rest of the country, still suffer from the effects of war. Food, fuel, clothing, not to mention all of those special luxuries, are strictly rationed and are in short supply. It doesn’t help that the winter is particularly harsh and dark and there is so little warmth to be found. And then comes the announcement from Buckingham Palace that Princess Elizabeth is to marry Philip Mountbatten. It casts a ray of light over the gloom. For Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin the news is especially meaningful. They are embroiderers at the Mayfair house of Norman Hartnell, so beloved by the Queen, and the two women have been picked to embroider the princess’s wedding gown. All of the details must be kept absolutely top secret! But there is so much else going on in the lives of Ann and Miriam as their friendship grows, against the backdrop of a city scarred by war. Miriam, especially, has suffered. She is a survivor of the Holocaust.

In Toronto in 2016, Heather Mackenzie’s beloved grandmother has died, leaving Heather a box full of secrets. Heather’s nan never discussed her old life in Britain but Heather discovers a story that deserves to be told, hinted out by the box’s contents of priceless embroideries, so similar to those that adorned the Queen’s wedding dress when she was still a princess. But there is another mystery. How well did Heather’s nan know the celebrated textile artist Miriam Dassin?

The Gown is one of those wonderful books that arrives on my doorstep completely unexpectedly but fits my reading mood perfectly and couldn’t be more welcome. The novel is advertised as ‘perfect for fans of The Crown‘. I am such a fan and I think that this claim is wholly justified. I read The Gown in just one day, in one glorious sitting. I barely looked up from it.

There’s a little bit of an upstairs downstairs feel about The Gown. We’re given glimpses of the royals and other rich and influential people who breeze through the Hartnell showrooms but mostly we spend our time in the sewing rooms with the women who have to enter the building through the back entrance. Both Ann and Miriam are given glimpses of this other glamorous world in which rich foods can still be had in the grandest of restaurants, but most of the time we see them at work or in their small shared house that is also freezing as they have nothing to heat it with. We see the daily monotony of their lives which contrasts with the beautiful things that they create. But it doesn’t grind them under. They love their work. I really liked the harmony of the Hartnell sewing rooms. The women work hard but they aren’t taken advantage of. This isn’t sensationalist. It feels believable. And the result is a fascinating glimpse of life in a 1940s’ fashion house in Mayfair.

But what makes The Gown such a spellbinding novel is Jennifer Robson’s portrayal of these two women, Ann and Miriam. The chapters alternate between them. We get to know them both so well. Miriam, especially, is a brilliant creation. As the truth about her past slowly emerges, I was in tears. In fact, this novel made me a cry a couple of times. I love writing that can do that. I’m brought into a world and I feel it around me and here there is such emotion.

Scattered throughout are chapters set in the present(ish) day involving Heather. These sections don’t have the power or impact of those set in 1947 but they’re still enjoyable. I really liked watching Heather’s visit to London, which continues Miriam’s story. Miriam is such a presence in the book. I couldn’t get enough of her.

Jennifer Robson writes so well. We can feel the past being built around us. But be warned – there are some dark themes here (there is one scene in particular that I found shocking) and tears did flow, but overall this is such a warm tale of friendship, endurance and survival. The trauma of World War II hangs over events, as does the vulnerability of young women trying to make a living and home for themselves in the big, wide world, but there is also hope for the future, depicted most effectively with the symbolism of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. The Gown is completely absorbing and engrossing and I’m so glad I read it.

The Lost Daughter by Gill Paul

Headline Review | 2018 (18 October) | 456p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Daughter by Gill PaulWhen the Romanovs, the overthrown ruling family of Russia, arrived in Ekaterinburg in 1918 they could have had no idea that this would be their final prison, that there could be no escape. At least, not for all. Maria Romanov, one of the Grand Duchesses, drew people to her with her naturally friendly nature. While this could lead to grief, it could also lead to love and to salvation. More than one of the guards fell for Maria but one in particular risked his life for her. This is the story of what might have been.

This isn’t the first time that Gill Paul has written a novel about the Romanovs. In the wonderful The Secret Wife, the life of another of the daughters, Tatiana, was reimagined. Now, in the centenary of their murder, the author turns to her sister Maria, giving her another chance of life. Events from the earlier novel are referred to here so it exists in the same historical universe. It adds another poignancy as Maria ceaselessly wonders what happened to Tatiana.

The Lost Daughter is an enchanting novel, quite melancholic at times, and extremely hard to put down. Maria is brought to life so beautifully. We live years of her life with her as she endures so much, her memories of her grand childhood growing ever fainter as she must deal with the reality of living in a Russia that wanted her dead and killed her family. But, as the years pass, things don’t get easier as the novel takes us through decades of Russian history, through the poverty and hardship of Lenin’s rule, through the terror of Stalin, and through the misery of the Second World War – the Siege of Leningrad forms a central part of the novel and it was this section that kept me up until so late into the night. It is utterly compelling.

As with The Secret Wife, there is a parallel story going on here. In this strand, we follow Val, an Australian woman living in Sydney who has an elderly, bitter, haunted Russian father. Val’s own life is difficult. She has an abusive husband. Her mother was driven away by her father. But now Val is breaking free and to do that she must understand her origins and what it is that tormented her father on his deathbed. It will lead her on a fascinating pilgrimage to the Soviet Union.

I must admit that I didn’t find the early chapters in Val’s life easy to read. Domestic violence is a subject I prefer to avoid in fiction but, once that section was past, I became thoroughly involved in Val’s tale. The chapters covering Maria’s life were the most engrossing – and how could they not be? What a story! – but I became increasingly intrigued by Val’s role in the novel, especially towards the end when everything comes together in such an emotionally charged and perfect way.

The Secret Wife is so steeped in 20th-century Russian history, mainly focusing on St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it became. I’ve visited the city several times (when it was Leningrad), including the mass graves from the Siege, and I think that Gill Paul captures its spirit – resilience, fortitude and suffering. I found it really emotional. But the novel also has the feel of a saga. Several generations are covered as Maria’s family grows and each must face their own challenges while finding their own peace and love. The role of the family is central to this book, especially the relationship between parents and children. Maria has lost so much and yet she has so much to give. I wept for her, and with her, more than once. Maria is the perfect subject for this gorgeously written, emotional, glorious, sweeping tale of tragedy, survival and Soviet Russia.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband
Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan

Zaffre | 2018 (4 October) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

A House of Ghosts by WC RyanThe winter solstice of 1917 is approaching and Lord Highmount has arranged a meeting of spiritualists and friends at his old and creaking house, Blackwater Abbey, located on a small island off the Devon coast. Lord Highmount and his wife Lady Elizabeth recently lost both of their sons in the war. The boys disappeared from their lives and they’re missed desperately. Lady Elizabeth believes that mediums Madame Feda and Count Orlov will unite her with their spirits. There are other visitors to the house, including a doctor who believes that his patient, a traumatised soldier, is in touch with the dead due to his own traumatic near-death experience. They have come to the right place.

And then there are Kate Cartwright and Robert Donovan. Kate and Donavon are at the house on a mission from Britain’s secret service. Lord Highmount is a successful industrialist contributing to the war effort. There are reasons to believe some of his plans have ended up on German desks and this ‘house party’ will provide the perfect opportunity to trap a spy. But there is far more to Kate than meets the eye.

A House of Ghosts is a stunning novel, a thoroughly absorbing read that combines a chilling ghost story – because it is indeed set within a house of ghosts – with a tale of war. The First World War overshadows everything in this novel. Almost everyone in the house has either lost someone to the war or has fought in it themselves and is recovering from its nightmare. It’s hardly surprising that the dead are restless.

Blackwater Abbey provides the perfect location, especially as it is cut off from the land by a mid winter storm. The house itself might be frightening but the outside is no less deadly. There is no escape for our small group of suspects when one of their number is found murdered. This classic murder mystery scenario, so well executed here, is reason enough to enjoy A House of Ghosts but it is enhanced by its melancholic mood, the result of war and loss, and by the very real chill of its ghosts for this is a house where the dead far outnumber the living.

Kate Cartwright and Donovan are the characters we grow closest to and they’re an enigmatic pair. I particularly enjoyed Kate’s attitude to the spiritual world around her, which contrasts so vividly to the attitude of Madame Feda. Kate is enduring her own loss. There is someone she too would like to contact. But all are distracted by the murderer stalking the house – is this person real?

As the evenings draw in, A House of Ghosts is the perfect read. It’s so easy to lose yourself in it. It’s beautifully written – as you’d expect from the author of The Constant Soldier – and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm. It provides food for thought, particularly on the devastating harm of war, and is impossible to put down.

Other reviews
The Constant Soldier