The German Girl tells the story of two brave young girls, Hannah of 1939 German and Anna of 2014 New York. Hannah, her parents, and her best friend Leo board the infamous St. Louis, the forlorn ship of Jewish refugees that sailed to Havana only to be turned way by Cuba, then the United States, and then by Canada. Anna and her mother are mourning the loss of her father who disappeared. These are families on the edge, seeking safety and their place in the world, but where is their place? When Hannah is 87, Anna is nearing her twelfth birthday. Anna is her nephew’s daughter and she wants to give her stories of her family
The German Girl has all the ingredients of a fabulously successful novel that will soon be followed by an even more fabulously successful movie. It begins in Berlin in the fabulous apartment of the Rosenthals, Max, Alma, and soon to be twelve-year old Hannah. Her mother wears couture gowns, their possessions have all the right labels. Father listens to opera on the gramophone, but that wealth is all indoors. Outside the apartment, we see the grim, gray and violent streets of the Nazi Germany. There’s the glorious cruise ship with magnificent ballrooms and the slowly decaying home in bright, sunny Havana and the narrow, claustrophobic lives of Anna and Hannah’s mothers. The cinematography would win Oscar nominations. And it all reveals Correa’s extraordinary ability to paint a visual image.
The story is tragic. It will make you cry time and time again. This is at least a 5 Kleenex® book. I cried a lot. Hannah has a way of visualizing people’s deaths that is disagreeable at any age. Lacking details, she provides her own, the most tragic details she can imagine, but you will feel like they are true.
So with excellent historical detail, important issues that challenge humanity, beautifully crafted scenes and heart-wrenching tragedy, why am I not enthusiastic about The German Girl? It is an interesting story. The writing craft is well-deployed, people are relatively complex and we can see, smell, and hear the places where the story takes place. But, I felt manipulated. I mean, it’s a Holocaust story, of course we will cry. But did we really need to see the deaths of even minor characters lovingly reimagined by Hannah? It’s a ploy to make us cry and we must cry because there is no other choice left to us. The ability to raise many tears is not the sole criteria for measuring this story.
My other complaint with the story is with Hannah, particularly twelve year old Hannah. Her narrative is filled with the abstract, she avoids the specific, the precision of words like Nazi, Jew, and Holocaust. The only time the word Nazi is used in the book is when Hannah is erroneously called a Nazi by her Cuban neighbors thanks to her German accent and name. The word Jewish occurs only twice, both times as negations—not Jewish—not German. If Correa was hoping to make this allegorical, to equate for example, Castro’s repression of Jehovah’s Witnesses with the Nazi Holocaust by not naming things, he’s wrong. There is power in naming things. The power to resist is rooted in naming what you resist. It felt like an affectation, a bad one.
For many readers, these problems will not matter. Perhaps they will even enhance the story. So, yes, many people will love The German Girl. I understand why they will. I understand its great potential. I just have my own reservations, but they are deeply felt.
The German Girl will be released on October 18th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.