In this novel of prewar Germany, “The Berlin Girl” by Mandy Robotham brings us right into the close-knit world of the journalists who staff tiny offices in capitals around the world in times of strife. Through the eyes of George Young, born Georgina Young and also known as Georgie Young, we enter the cosmopolitan, complex, and perilous environment of Berlin as the Nazis became more ruthless and less concerned with world approbation.
Georgie arrives in Berlin in 1938 with Max Spender, a journalist from a rival paper. They are supposed to work together to learn the ropes in Berlin, and Georgie, fluent in German, is to help Max get around town. Max, however, isn’t interested in Georgie’s help, and Georgie is left to her own devices. The bureau chief of Georgie’s paper in Berlin is not present to show Georgie around, and she quickly learns about something he had been investigating — something that is so dangerous that it might be related to his disappearance.
Robotham’s able writing and her intricate yet engrossing plot ensure that we keep reading and turning page after page to find out what will happen when Georgie attracts the attention of Kasper Vortsch, an up-and-coming member of Hitler’s SS. There are many, many fascinating characters, including other members of the British and American press and the sophisticated, seasoned female journalists with whom Georgie is able to live. The scenes include dinners in elegant restaurants, extended drinking afternoons, and delicious strudel at outdoor tables where those waiting tables make extra money and satisfy their patriotism by being informants. We also vicariously ride in a blimp and dine with a group of Nazi elite, and we see their debauchery as comparable to that of the Roman Empire.
Georgie has become reacquainted with Rubin, who was her driver when she was in Berlin years earlier. She hires him to work as her driver again until after Kristallnacht, when Jews are not allowed to drive cars. By this point, she has met Rubin’s wife Sara, their two children, and Sara’s brother Elias, who was badly injured in a fall and is unable to work. They worry constantly that Elias is in danger from the Nazis, and we feel the palpable dark shadows that loom over all Berlin, and especially the Jews, as the violence and hatred directed at them comes to a head.
Robotham pulls no punches. In the prologue, she seems to be attempting to inoculate us from the violence she will hint at with a scene in which a Gestapo official brutally tortures and kills a Jew. The excellent writing makes the brutal event more horrific by not actually describing the minute details, but rather describing the officer’s rage over the speck of blood that stains his pristine uniform. Similarly, we feel the hunger of imprisoned Jews not from stark description of their living conditions, but rather by their appearance and how they react when serving a sumptuous dinner for a group of high-ranking Nazis.
The action become more and more fraught with danger as both Georgie and Max move from functioning as detached journalists to becoming involved conspirators who are determined to get Rubin and Sara and their family to safety, endangering their own lives along the way. I literally didn’t want to stop reading after the midpoint of the story because I had to find out how it all ended.
Robotham’s writing is so engaging and the characters so real that we forget these are fictional characters, and while writing this, I actually — for a moment — forgot that the newspaper articles in the Epilogue were part of the fiction. She chillingly shares the evil of those to whom a genocide is nothing, and the evil of those who were willing to stand by and ignore it happening literally on their doorstep. We are frustrated by the inaction of England and America as they fail to recognize and even ignore Hitler’s demonic actions, and we vicariously feel the frustration of the press who were there and saw it happening but were helpless to actually do anything.
Reading about the cult mentality and the horrifying mob frenzy around Hitler is an important reminder in this day and age of the danger of allowing any one person to become a demagogue — to reign despotically above the law and to willfully disregard the very essence of moral decency.
First posted on Bookreporter.com.
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