Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The German Girl

Author: Armando Lucas Correa
Genre: Historical Fiction (WWII), Young Adult
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Atria Books
First Published: October 18, 2016
First Line: "I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents."

Book Description from GoodReadsA stunningly ambitious and beautiful debut novel, perfect for fans of Sarah’s Key and All the Light We Cannot See, the story of a twelve-year-old girl’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.

In 1939 before everything changed, Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. Her family moved in Berlin’s highest social circles, admired by friends and neighbors. Eleven-year-old Hannah was often taken by her mother for an afternoon treat at the tea room of the beautiful Adlon Hotel, both dressed in their finest clothes. She spent her afternoons at the park with her best friend Leo Martin. But, in an instant, that sunlit world vanished. Now the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; their fine possessions are hauled away, and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. The two friends make a pact: come what may, they promise to have a future together.

As Hannah and Leo’s families desperately begin to search for a means of escape, a glimmer of hope appears when they discover the Saint Louis, a transatlantic liner that can give Jews safe passage to Cuba. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart from Hamburg on the luxurious passenger liner bound for Havana. Life aboard the ship is a welcome respite from the gloom of Berlin—filled with masquerade balls, dancing, and exquisite meals every night.

As the passengers gain renewed hope for a bright future ahead, love between Hannah and Leo blossoms. But soon reports from the outside world began to filter in, and dark news overshadows the celebratory atmosphere on the ship; the governments of Cuba, the United States, and Canada are denying the passengers of the St. Louis admittance to their countries, forcing them to return to Europe as it descends into the Second World War. The ship that had seemed their salvation seems likely to become their death sentence.

After four days anchored at bay, only a handful of passengers are allowed to disembark onto Cuban soil, and Hannah and Leo must face the grim reality that they could be torn apart. Their future is unknown, and their only choice will have an impact in generations to come.

Decades later in New York City on her eleventh birthday, Anna Rosen receives a mysterious envelope from Hannah, a great-aunt she has never met but who raised her deceased father. In an attempt to piece together her father’s mysterious past, Anna and her mother travel to Havana to meet Hannah, who is turning eighty-seven years old. Hannah reveals old family ties, recounts her journey aboard the Saint Louis and, for the first time, reveals what happened to her father and Leo. Bringing together the pain of the past with the mysteries of the present, Hannah gives young Anna a sense of their shared histories, forever intertwining their lives, honoring those they loved and cruelly lost.

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

My Review:  WWII fiction is one of my favourite genres so when I saw this book I knew that it was right up my alley.  The story is told via two 12-year-old narrators in two different eras.  One follows Hannah, a Jewish girl living in Berlin in 1939 and modern day Anna, a descendant of Hannah's, who lives in New York City.

The first half of the book briefly introduces us to Anna but most of the page time is given to Hannah and her family's escape from Germany just before war breaks out.  Living in Germany under the increasing power of what Hannah calls 'the Ogres' is hard. While Hannah has the unique experience of being a Jew yet looking more Aryan in complexion, this does not make her life easier and causes discord within her Jewish community.  As Jews they are constantly denigrated by their neighbours and fear that their lives are in danger.  This abuse, as well as the mood in Berlin at the time, is vividly portrayed to the reader.   

Surprisingly I didn't find myself invested in Hannah's (or Anna's) hardships.  The setting and the plot were screaming for an emotional connection but it felt like Correa didn't delve deep enough into the emotions of his characters.  Add in the very slowly paced plot and unfortunately I didn't feel like I had much of a connection to either of the girls whose personalities were so similar that they seemed to blend together.  Personally, I would have preferred for Anna's story line to be omitted entirely with more focus on Hannah's family.  

After reading this book I questioned whether or not this is supposed to be a Historical Fiction for young teens instead of adults.  The writing itself, while descriptive to a point, felt geared to a younger audience.  It felt like the effects of this horrific war were toned down for the reader.  If this book is written for a younger audience (and I could find no mention of it being specifically a YA read) I suppose it could be said that Correa was making his book age appropriate.  Personally, if this is written for adults I don't think the devastation of WWII and the horror that was inflicted on Jews by the Nazis is something that should be glossed over. I also don't understand why, except for one instance I can recall, the author chose to not use the terms Jew, Nazi or Holocaust in his book.

What I will take away from this novel is the fact that I enjoyed learning about the S.S St Louis, the trans-Atlantic ship that Hannah and her family took with almost 1,000 other people to Cuba to escape the horrors of war.  I had previously no knowledge that there were refugees who escaped the Nazis only to be turned away by Cuba (who suddenly decided not to honour the visas that the passengers had procured earlier). ** Note: The US and Canada were also among the countries who also turned away these refugees. **  That was an aspect of WWII, in all of my reading, that I had no knowledge of and I'm grateful that I now know more about that aspect of the war.

A plot focusing on the plight of Jewish refugees during WWII gave The German Girl all the makings of a unique, touching and wonderful WWII fiction read.  Unfortunately, I don't think that Correa, an award winning journalist and author, delved deep enough into the issues or the emotions of his characters to make it a truly gripping and emotional read.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


Margaret @ JustOneMoreChapter said...

I don't usually read reviews before starting a book, but I am stuck at about 45% on this one, my plan was to have it finished before release date and that didn't happen. I really wanted to love this one too, such a good premise and I've never heard of the St Louis before. My thoughts are very similar to yours, good review.

Laurie@The Baking Bookworm said...

Sorry Margaret -- I just saw this comment. I agree about the great premise but it sounds like it just didn't hit the mark for you or I. We're in the minority but not alone.

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