Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Life in Wartime : Two Reviews - by Katherine Langrish

Having been involved in a discussion recently about what online reviews are for ( to recommend to others books we really love? – to punish authors we hate when they write stuff we don’t like? – to point out their dreadful mistakes? – to provide a penetrating critique so the author can do a better job next time? ) – I’ve come down firmly for the first option. So here’s a recommendation from me for two recently published and brilliant books, both set in the context of the Second World War. I hope you’ll read and enjoy them.
SAVING RAFAEL by Leslie Wilson, Andersen Press
This is an absolutely marvellous book, which had me gripped from the first page to the last. It’s first and foremost a love story between Jenny and Rafael, two young Germans whose families have always been friends – but because Rafael is Jewish and they are living in Nazi-ruled Berlin, their feelings for one another put them in terrible danger.
Jenny’s family is Quaker and pacifist, but in order to survive, first her father and then her brother are forced to join Hitler’s armies, leaving Jenny and her mother to struggle through the bombings and firestorms, trying desperately to protect their Jewish friends, and to retain some integrity in a world where simply refusing to say ‘Heil Hitler’ can bring the attention of the SS.
Jenny and Rafael are convincing teenagers: rash, passionate, sometimes even managing to have fun outwitting the ghastly system in which they live. I read the book with my heart in my mouth for them, dreading the outcome. Other characters too come to vivid life: families and communities torn apart by war.
Leslie Wilson, whose previous book LAST TRAIN FROM KUMMERSDORF was also set in Nazi Germany, brings us face to face with the dilemmas of ordinary Germans: the ugliness and moral cowardice which comes of living with fear, the cruelty of a perverted nationalism – but she also marks the heroism of small decencies and covert acts of kindness: the neighbours’ unspoken conspiracy to ignore the signs that Jenny and her mother are sheltering a Jew, when concealing that knowledge is in itself an act of extreme danger. This is a serious book, but not a depressing one. (Jenny’s little dog Muffi is a wonderful cameo character, and there are many touches of humour.) It upholds life and love, and I loved it.

ROWAN THE STRANGE by Julie Hearn, Oxford University Press
A wartime novel with a difference, this time set in England - the third in a wonderful series which might loosely be termed a family saga (the first two were IVY and HAZEL) – but each novel can be read independently of the others.
It’s 1939, and Rowan, the son of Hazel and grandson of Ivy, is about to be evacuated from London. But Rowan’s not like other children. He’s subject to odd compulsions and terrors, and after he injures his sister in one uncontrollable outburst, his parents decide he will be safer in an institution where he can be treated.
So off Rowan goes to an asylum. But what is madness? Where is the sanity in a countryside where Rowan sees such surreal sights as farmworkers wearing gas masks while they pick apples? And in the asylum itself, where the doctors are ‘cruel to be kind’, using literally shocking therapies in the name of sanity, how important is it to ‘cure’ madness? And if a delusion is an essential part of someone’s personality, what will happen if you if blast it away?
Rowan himself is an attractive hero: introspective, willing and anxious to please. His friend Dorothea (who sees people’s guardian angels) is a fascinating creation, ‘as bright and as bitter as a lemon’ – cynical yet innocent, vulnerable yet indomitable. And then there’s the well-meaning therapist himself, Dr von Metzer – tormented by the knowledge of what is happening to mentally ill children in Germany.
This is a subtle and compelling story – with just a touch of magical realism – in which Rowan’s schizophrenia and life at the asylum with its terrible ‘treatments’, uncertain cures, and small but important rewards (a slice of cake which you are allowed to cut for yourself; a part in the Christmas pantomime) stand for the wider madness of a world at war.

1 comment:

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great reviews Kath... thank you... I'm looking forward to reading them esp Leslie's