1946. The ruins of Essen, Germany. A place that can’t quite believe the Second World War has been lost.
There’s Clara. Once a wartime icon and heiress to the Falkenberg iron works, she now finds herself on the run from the Allied authorities, accused by the zealous Allied occupiers of complicity in her father’s war crimes.
There’s Jakob. A charming black marketeer, badly wounded in the war but determined to help what’s left of his family survive the peace.
There’s Willy. A teenage boy diligently guarding a mine full of Wehrmacht supplies, his only friend a canary named Gertrud. Convinced the war isn’t over, he refuses to surrender his post.
When Clara returns to her hometown expecting to find her best friend, she finds everything she once knew in ruins. But in war-ravaged Germany, it’s not just the buildings that are scarred: everyone is changed, everyone lives in the wreckage of their own past.
To survive, Clara must hide who she is. But to live, she must face up to the truth of what she’s done.
At school we learnt about the Second World War, we learnt about its aftermath, but not what was happening in Germany.
This novel explains some of things that were likely happening.
Clara’s family iron works made things for the Nazi army, her father knew many of the high ranking officials, and while she didn’t directly carry out any specific atrocities, she was complicit in some.
This is what she has been running from and what catches up to her when she finally returns to Essen.
Unlike her English mother she cannot claim she knew nothing and carry on with a semblance of her former life; her father placed her in charge of the factory and she saw some of the things the Allies wish to prosecute her for.
But she has uncovered secrets about her own family, secrets unconnected to the war, things she must set right before she will hand herself in.
With time running out she has to use all the things she has learnt to try to rescue a young boy way out of his depths.
Clara is a brave and resourceful protagonist, preparing to accept responsibility for her actions, but also trying to help others caught up in her family dramas.
The book is well written and very readable, the characters elicit empathy, and the author creates a ruined, bombed out city struggling to get by very vividly.
I was kindly gifted a copy of this book and asked to review it to celebrate the UK publication on March 5th.