I do like a novel that as well as being a good story teaches me something. Berlin Love Song does just that, putting life into what must have been a huge research task in order to show what happened in what’s been called ‘the forgotten Holocaust’ of Germany’s Romani people.
But this story does more than show the experience of one Gypsy family, and one teenage trapeze artist, Lily, in particular. It counterpoints Lily's experience of life and death in Second World War Germany with that of her lover Max, a teenage boy from a rich Berlin family whose members all react differently to the demands that Hitler’s government puts on them. Max isn’t much interested in politics, but finds himself having to become a member of the Hitler Youth movement, and then a member of the SS in the dying days of the war. Both Lily's and Max's points of view give us a fresh alternative to the usual British point of view we experience when reading about World War Two, and that in itself gives great food for thought.
This all sounds grim, and of course much of what we experience in the story is, but the story starts with the aged Max looking back to his teenage romance to tell the story of both those characters and their families, so we know from the start that at least he survived. We also have the wonderfully colourful life of the circus performer Romanies pre-internment, we have the romance of the love story to carry us through, and a positive and hopeful ending is achieved (but I’m not going to give it away!).
In order to keep the story moving, Sarah Matthias has resisted stopping to explain things as we go, so the story assumes a certain knowledge of what concentration camps are and how these Nazi ones worked, what Doctor Mengele really did, as well as the experience to understand from the clues given that Lily and Max have made love.
For most of the story, Max and Lily are in different locations, and so the story is told first person by each of them in short chapters that jump from one to the other. We never lose sight of either character for long, so the story flows well once the contrivance of the old man at the beginning is passed. So many characters and such a lot of complex history, this is a great achievement!
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