Fiction, Reviews

Her Hidden Life by V.S. Alexander (2018)

I bought this novel on a whim in the supermarket (something I hardly ever do) because I was just in the mood to buy a book. It happens. Almost all of the novels on sale were sensational crime, romances, or what was once called ‘chick lit’ and this was the only one that appealed to me. The unusual setting and female protagonist of Her Hidden Life convinced me to buy it.

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Magda Ritter is a young Berliner who ends up working as a ‘taster’ for Hitler – tasting all his food before it is served to him to see if it’s poisoned. Fun times. From the start she states that she is not a supporter of Hitler, and she only ends up working for him because the Reichsbund is the only place where she can get a job, as she has no skills beyond basic housekeeping. Despite not being a Party member, Magda’s well-connected Nazi uncle means that she is accepted for a job, though she has no idea what it is. One day she is picked up in car, and taken to the Berghof, one of Hitler’s countryside retreats.

Here she works as a taster in the kitchen with several other women doing the same job. Her life among the Nazi elite is surprisingly humdrum, despite her random yet frequent chance meetings with Eva Braun and her attraction to SS Captain Karl Weber. This is something I noticed throughout the novel – Magda describes everything rather flatly and in a matter of fact way, even when she describes her feelings of love for Karl, and her feelings of hate for Hitler. Her hatred of Hitler only develops once Karl shows her photographs of killing squads and concentration camps; up until that point she expresses little feeling either way and even states that the plight of the Jewish people does not affect her as she doesn’t know anyone who’s Jewish, so she has never thought about. Magda admits she is naive, but that’s an understatement.

Personally I think that while Magda is genuinely horrified by what she learns, most of the impetus for her hatred of Hitler comes from the fact that Karl hates him, and she loves Karl. He is a fictional character inserted into the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, and is alarmingly quick to tell Magda all about it once they get together. Magda then dedicates herself to his cause and develops fantasies of killing Hitler herself, to the point of obsession. From this point on that is all Magda thinks about, in a totally unbelievable way – she doesn’t seem to accept how impossible it would be to murder him without being caught, and she doesn’t depict how he would have always been surrounded by security as well as his most senior ministers and officers. She makes the situation all about her and her love for Karl.

One review I came across on GoodReads made the very good point that everything seems to happen to Magda in the course of the novel, and this sometimes makes it all a bit hard to believe. I have to agree that way too much is crammed into this novel, and its only 384 pages. Not only does Magda meet Hitler on more than one occasion, she also develops a tenuous friendship with Eva Braun, and just happens to meet Claus von Stauffenberg in the woods at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters., which of course would happen in real life! Magda’s experiences are like if you thought of all the key things a person could have gone through in the war, and then made them all happen to one person – working with the Reich elite, meeting Hitler, living in two of his residences, experiencing bombing in Berlin, losing a parent, being sent to a concentration camp (really), being in Berlin again and being raped by Russian soldiers, oh and then ending up in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945. By that point I was incredulous.

I think when I realised that Magda was being sent to a camp did I give up believing in any of it. After the 20th July plot Karl flees and Magda is suspected of being involved. An anonymous Colonel seems to hate her for some reason, and so he accuses her and gets her shipped off to Bromberg-Ost. Luckily Magda only has to endure two days of work before she gets an officer to believe that she worked for Hitler, and he gets her out, and she returns to her work at the Berghof. Lucky girl! If only it was that easy!

This section of the book really got to me. By this point Magda has heard about the camps, but still has very limited knowledge and doesn’t know about the gas chambers. She describes her arrival and processing, and that she is told “All work was to be completed in the name of the Reich, for ‘work makes you free’.” This is of course a heavy handed reference to the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ emblazoned over the gate to Auschwitz and several other camps, and I found it in very poor taste and completely inappropriate and disrespectful; even if Magda is supposed to be ignorant of the use of the slogan. I found lots of small moments like this throughout the book that were just not appropriate. Like the fact that Magda is sent to a camp, but manages to get out by dropping the fact that she works for Hitler. While there she befriends two women, one of whom disappears during her stay, and another who is Jewish. She worries about them as she leaves but doesn’t think about them again. Similarly she abandons her friend and her friend’s family, after they have been raped by Russian soldiers in Berlin, so that she can seek the safety of Hitler’s bunker – she had been invited but up until that point refused to go. Again she briefly worries about the women she has left behind, but then they disappear from her thoughts.

After reading a bit about the author V.S. Alexander, and particularly this blog post about writing the book, I realised that while he made a point of researching the historical material, he clearly has no idea how to write about these subjects. I’m no historian but I felt like even I could write about these things with a little more sensitivity and understanding. Alexander also states that he was inspired by the story of Margot Woelk, a woman who actually was a taster for Hitler, and decided to tell her story finally in her 90s. I read this article about Margot Woelk and realised just how much of her story is used in Her Hidden Life – but also how the point was missed, and the novel is made into some kind of sweeping romance about Magda fulfilling Karl’s dream and then trying to redeem herself by telling her story. In fact, the back cover copy asks the reader to “lose yourself in this sweeping, heroic love story fraught with danger.” Because that was what life was like during World War II.

Perhaps worst of all is Magda’s time spent in Hitler’s bunker at the end of the war. This setting is unique and nuanced, and should be handled carefully, and V.S. Alexander is frankly not qualified to do this. I cringed at the scenes where Magda encounters Magda Goebbels and her children – she even goes into the room after the children are dead. I don’t what the author was thinking. He even portrays Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries who has written about her experiences, and makes it seem like she is dedicated to the Fuhrer. And then misspells her name when he credits her book at the end (a book which in part inspired the incredible film Downfall, which will give you a much more accurate look at life in the bunker).

The point is that many of the events depicted in this novel happened to real people, and so you can’t just write about them as if they are juicy drama. Even though Magda experiences a camp and being raped, the writing never conveys how awful things are. After the failed assassination attempt she is arrested because the Colonel has a vendetta against her – and then when this is reversed she is able to return to her work in the Berghof. But in reality, as the wife of a conspirator she would have either been sent to a camp and kept there, or would have been executed immediately. Instead, in this novel, she just carries on working for Hitler. There is only a fleeting mention of Von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators, even though they would have been imprisoned and executed. My point is that even though Magda sees the camps firsthand, and sees how people are suffering in Berlin, the cold ruthlessness of Hitler and the Nazis is never really conveyed. Their obsessive hatred of Jewish people and all the others they persecuted is never shown. Instead the author uses them as pantomime villains for his dramatic heroine to dance around.

I have had a rant at my husband about this book and I think I could probably rant here even more – but I’m going to stop there for fear of driving away any readers who are still here… I hope I have managed to convey my issues with this book without just rambling.

If you do want to read novels about World War II, there are so many others that do a much better job than Her Hidden Life – novels that respect the tragedy and the people who suffered, who appropriately explore what really happened. This is not one of those novels unfortunately.

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Published as The Taster by Kensington Publishing in the US; and by Avon, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the UK. I read the Avon paperback, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

The Ice Child by Camilla Lackberg

I have to admit this book was an impulse purchase. In Waitrose. But I just really felt like some slightly generic crime, and The Ice Child fulfilled that wish. It is part of a series of books about Detective Patrik Hedström and his wife Erica, who is a writer, who both just happen to get caught up in wonderfully complex cases in their small Scandanavian town. In this case, a naked teenage girl suddenly appears in the road just outside of town, and is hit by a car. The car drives off, and the girl is found by Marta, out horse riding. The girl is badly wounded, and her eyes have been removed, as well as her tongue (Lackberg doesn’t spare her readers from the gruesome side of things). It turns out the girl is Victoria, a local teenager who attends the riding school owned by Marta and her husband Jonas – and who has been missing for several months.

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Patrik is part of the team investigating Victoria’s disappearance and that of several other girls in the area. His wife Erica becomes involved when an old case she is writing a book about suddenly seems to be connected to the missing girls. Add to the mix Jonas’ strange and unhappy parents, and you have a cast of characters filled with mystery and suspicion. The Ice Child is a story of life in a small town that has gone horribly wrong; of family secrets that have evolved into something much worse that any of the characters could imagine. I didn’t quite predict the ending – Lackberg manages to make it very twisty – but by the last third of the book I could see who was involved with the missing girls. It’s a fairly formulaic story with a few red herrings and a good dose of odd behaviour from several of the characters that could look suspicious. The best mystery for me was the old case the Erica is writing about – I couldn’t quite fit it together with the present day story until right at the end, which made it more entertaining, and it kept me reading!

The Ice Child isn’t the most challenging of crime novels, and I think the gruesome treatment of Victoria and the other missing girls was a bit unnecessary – the darkness of it jars with the small town setting, but not in a way that works. The gruesomeness was a bit over the top and ended up feeling a bit sensational, as the family secrets that are exposed are enough to entertain the reader and explain some of the mysteries. There were some great moments though, particularly in the examination of the roles of women as wives and mothers, and how these roles can take very different forms. The impossibility of knowing who someone really is also looms large over the events of the novel and we start to wonder if any of the characters can really be trusted. It’s a very twisty, turning story that unfolds slowly at first, and the dramatically as Patrik and Erica uncover more and more layers of truth.

I don’t read a huge amount of crime fiction so I am still working out what works for me, and I’m afraid I don’t think Camilla Lackberg is it. While I enjoyed The Ice Child it was a bit too formulaic for me, and the language was a little clunky – though of course that could be down to the translation. Either way my next crime novel will have to be something a little different and more challenging!

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Published in the UK in 2016 by Harper.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, or Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Ice Twins by S. K. Tremayne

Creepy children, and indeed twins, are not a new idea – they appear in countless films and books as a classic scary, horror motif, and aren’t very original. And yet they are still creepy, and probably always will be. In The Ice Twins S. K. Tremayne (the “pseudonym of a journalist and bestselling writer”, according to the Harper Collins website) carefully uses twins to create a deep sense of unease and doubt, and to great effect. There are several moments of genuine eeriness and uncanniness, and the amount of psychological pain the characters go through creates an atmosphere to rival some of the best horror – and yet… and yet this novel does not quite hit the mark. As I say there are some parts that are really very good, and the plotting is done extremely well, with the truth being eked out little by little from the characters. But The Ice Twins is not a resounding success.

(image: harpercollins.co.uk)

(image: harpercollins.co.uk)

There is an awful lot of clunky and contrived writing, sometimes in snippets and sometimes for whole pages. It starts early on, when our narrator Sarah reminisces about when she met her husband: “Angus had a tinge of stubble when we first met, and I liked that; I liked the way it emphasised his jawline…” These were moments that I just couldn’t take seriously, that made me think, no one talks like that. Unfortunately this happens throughout the book, and sometimes ruins some excellent scenes.

There are also an alarming amount of brand names, which I found jarring. Sarah and Angus’ daughter Kirstie seems to be surrounded by them – Wimpy Kid, Charlie and Lola, and One Direction (a specific song is even named) are all mentioned over and over again, and Sarah’s narration is overly specific about which particular bit of London or Scotland they are in. The overly specific nature of these details robs the story of some of its charm, and rather than just relating the story to the real world, which could be good, it seems like Tremayne is trying too hard to make the characters and their life seem real. I found it very distracting, and it took away from the creepy sense of mystery, particularly with Kirstie.

For there is of course the question of whether or not Kirstie is really Kirstie. The fact is she might be Lydia. Sarah and Angus might not really know which of their daughters died. A seed of doubt is planted in their minds, and in the mind of the reader too. Despite my criticisms, I will admit that I could not quite guess what was going on in The Ice Twins, and what the conclusion would be. Wanting to know was what kept me reading, and I was genuinely intrigued. I was willing to battle past the sometimes clunky writing, and the irritating Sarah, to find out what really happened. It was an ending I didn’t expect, and I like the way that information was given out slowly, the picture building gradually. Really, this is a very good story, a very interesting idea, but the problem is in the execution. Instead of being a masterful thriller that could be excellent as a film, The Ice Twins falls short and is more of trip down misery lane, basking in one family’s unhappiness. Read it for the mystery and the suspense, but don’t expect too much.

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Published on 29th January 2015 by Harper Collins (UK). My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Fiction, Guest Posts, Reviews

Best of 2012: Rook, Swimming Home, Hawthorn & Child, and Object Lessons – Guest Post by Alan Bowden

This guest post has been written by blogger and philosophy PhD student Alan Bowden. Alan’s blog Words of Mercury is an intelligent and well-written book blog with a variety of texts as well as Alan’s own fiction and poetry. Here he talks about his favourite books of 2012 (he couldn’t choose just one!), Rook by Jane Rusbridge, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story.

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2012 has been a significant year for me as I’m of the firm belief that it’s the first time I really started reading fiction. (I also got married). I’ve read hundreds of novels, but only once I began writing reviews for my blog did I realise what they can really do. As a result, many of the books I’ve read this year have a lasting personal significance beyond their purely literary achievements. The books that follow are as much a reflection of my new engagement with contemporary fiction as they are an attempt to pick some personal highlights of what has been, by all accounts, a very good year. A quick note on criteria: with one obvious exception all my choices were – to the best of my knowledge – published for the first time in 2012. Reprints, translations, new editions, and so on, were excluded.

Some further criteria: The late Peter Goldie turned more than once in his writings on the philosophy of art to a quotation from his favourite author Joseph Conrad. He felt that it captured the essence and value of the project of creating and consuming art. The artist, Conrad wrote, ‘speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts; to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspiration, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.’  More than anything, the books which will stay with me from this year have looked to speak in this way.

Jane Rusbridge’s wonderful Rook (Bloomsbury Circus) successfully seeks to occupy the slippery but persistent ground between the land and the sea, the past and the present, bereavement and consolation, in language that flows with the rhythms of the tides that inundate the Sussex village of Bosham and the insistence of the young rook rescued and nurtured by Nora, a former concert cellist forced to return to the home of her widowed mother by the crisis which haunts the novel. The interpenetration of the language of the mind and landscape in moments which shift toward the visionary before returning, quite literally, to earth, emphasises Rusbridge’s concerns, not only with the role of place in forming our mental economy, but also with the idea that the only way that we can reach out and touch the past is by staying where we are and living in the same buried spaces.

2012 paperback cover. Image: bloomsbury.com

2012 paperback cover. Image: bloomsbury.com

A concern with the complexities of surface and depth underpins Booker shortlisted Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories/Faber). Gathered around a pool in the South of France are two quite different couples, childless shop-owners Laura and Mitchell, and war correspondent Isabel and poet Joe who are accompanied by their teenage daughter Nina. The pool’s surface is disturbed by the arrival of Kitty, a painfully thin young woman obsessed by Joe’s poetry. Her uneasy transition between surface and depth is mirrored and undermined by Levy’s refusal to allow clear distinctions between private thought and public behaviour. Levy clouds motivations and relationships as the transparent pool water becomes cloudy through mismanagement and inattention. With a Cubist fondness for allusion, her faceted prose creates a fluid space of shifting desires, dreams, and repressed violence.

2011 paperback cover. Image: andotherstories.org

2011 paperback cover. Image: andotherstories.org

From fractured minds to broken narratives of urban lives, the much tweeted and quite stunning Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta) sticks a policeman’s boot into the novel and emerges bloody and triumphant between the splints of its covers. A set of eight stories set in North London and loosely held together by the detectives of its title, this book challenges any and all coherence you felt your identity and experience might have. It’s a novel of violence and sickness of language; of fear, memory, suspicion, lust, and confusion. And it’s marvellous. ‘I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.’ But is there?

2012 paperback cover. Image: grantabooks.com

2012 paperback cover. Image: grantabooks.com

The mind’s resilience beneath the weight of solitude and the meaning of human endeavour are at the heart of James Smythe’s unforgiving novel The Explorer (Harper Voyager) in which journalist Cormac Easton finds himself the lone survivor on a mission to deep space. Then it gets weird. Smythe’s writing is controlled to within an inch of its life and Cormac’s direct first-person voice, which begins as a journalist’s selfish mythologisation of endurance, becomes as tender as a bruise as its pretention is stripped away by shock after psychological shock. What is it to explore with no hope of remembrance? How does one understand oneself when stripped of the gaze of others? The bizarre reflexivity Cormac achieves is testament to Smythe’s narrative and poetic imagination and ambition in his consideration of exploration, time, and identity.

2013 hardback cover. Image: harpercollins.co.uk

2013 hardback cover. Image: harpercollins.co.uk

Finally, Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story (William Heinemann) contains a superb collection of stories. Each has been selected and introduced by another excellent writer, some of whom appear as both a selector and a selectee. Thus Jeffrey Eugenides introduces Denis Johnson’s remarkable ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ which, he argues, ‘delivers a narrative where the personal brushes up against the eternal, all from a single incident, or accident, on a rainy night.’ Lydia Davis selects and dissects Jane Bowles’ ‘Emmy Moore’s Journal’, revealing its hidden and confused despair, whilst her own ‘Ten Stories from Flaubert’ appears as Ali Smith’s choice. I must confess that I haven’t finished this book yet: I refuse to rush it. Each story must be read and then returned to once the introduction has been taken in. As a guide and inspiration for the budding short story writer Object Lessons cannot fail.

2012 hardback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

2012 hardback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

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Rook was published in August 2012 by Bloomsbury Circus, an imprint of Bloomsbury UK. Swimming Home was published in October 2011 by And Other Stories/Faber. Hawthorn & Child was published in July 2012 by Granta Books. The Explorer will be published in January 2013 by Harper Voyager, an imprint of Harper Collins. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story was published in October 2012 by William Heinemann, an imprint of the Random House Group.

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