I was drawn to the book whilst browsing through Foyles with my boyfriend Matt one afternoon in London. We promised ourselves we wouldn't buy anything, but I think we came out with at least five or six paperbacks between us. This title stood out to me immediately. As an English girl harbouring an absolute love of Germany, its language and culture, the words The English German Girl really spoke to me. I didn't get round to reading it straight away, choosing first to tackle Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose which, whilst an excellent read, took a lot longer than I anticipated to get my head around! I finally took Jake Wallis Simons' book with me on the train to Norwich and, faced with nearly four hours of travelling, settled down with my new book.
I soon realised this was not the same as the war-themed books I had read in the past. Set in Berlin, the author had really worked to keep present the 'German-ness' of the story by using plenty of German words throughout, rather than anglicising everything. As a reader, I was transported to Berlin between the wars, accompanying the protagonist Rosa to school, helping her learn to ride a bicycle and finally travelling next to her on the train from Berlin to England, leaving behind the security of her family and heading for the safety of London. A heartrending account of Rosa's struggle to learn English and settle into this new country, whilst trying desperately to find a way to bring her Jewish family to London and share her freedom, the book gripped me from start to finish. The author made the interesting decision to focus solely on Rosa, so that once it became clear that Rosa's father, mother, brother and sister would not get out of Berlin before war was declared and the German borders were slammed shut, we were left sharing in Rosa's agony not knowing what had happened to them all. I spent a lot of time waiting (or rather, hoping) for at least one of them to turn up on her doorstep as part of a miraculous tale of survival, but I had to wait until very near the end to be sure of their sad fate.
Although there is almost no let up to the heartache in this novel, the astounding attention to detail serves as a constant reminder that this was how it was, and that when reading a novel based on the Holocaust you shouldn't, no, can't expect to breathe a sigh of relief. The length of the acknowledgements and bibliography prove just how much effort was put in by the author to make this work true to life (and in fact several characters were not entirely fictional). He himself explains: "To avoid historical travesty I wanted to make it as accurate and realistic as possible; at the same time, I did not want to stand accused – as Peter Hall so memorably put it – of 'bumming a ride on the Holocaust'." I would say that he has certainly achieved his goal. This is not a story which uses the tragic events of the war to make a nice story, but rather is a gripping account of the pain and suffering experienced by so many. The ending, whilst bringing some sort of healing for Rosa, proves that a shattered world remains so, and that emotional scars never really fade. Life goes on, and so does grief. Coping mechanisms may be found, but the legacy of the war will outlive us all.
Next time I'm in Foyles, I will head straight to the shelf to look for another book by Jake Wallis Simons.