More Empire of the Sun than The Painted Bird, British author Charlesworth’s fourth (Glass House, 1987, etc.), based on her mother’s history, follows a half-Jewish German girl’s travails during WWII after her mother’s arrangements for her to leave Germany go awry.
It’s 1939 when Ilse arrives in Morocco to stay with her uncle Willie. Her father Otto, a Jewish Communist, has stayed in Germany on principle to resist the Nazis while Ilse’s mother Lore is supposedly saving money for her own passage. When Willie joins the French Foreign Legion to fight Hitler, Ilse is sent to Paris, expecting to find both parents. Only Otto shows up. Lore doesn't come. Instead, sending papers that erase Ilse’s Jewish heritage, she asks the girl to return to Germany, where, as an Aryan, she will now supposedly be safe. Otto feels betrayed by Lore, who used Ilse to get him to leave Germany for his own safety. Ilse is torn between loyal obedience to her father, whose lack of past attention she resents, and yearning for her mother, whose maternal love she never doubts. Ultimately, Ilse stays with Otto. As Paris falls, they make their way south, helped along the way by the romantic if shadowy resistance fighter Francois, a Polish Jew whose personal mission becomes keeping Ilse safe over the next four years. Ilse and Otto end up in Marseilles, where a well-connected madam protects them—until the Germans capture Otto. Ilse’s ambivalence toward her father, a hero in the eyes of the world but a man riddled with human imperfection, is particularly moving. Meanwhile, during the bombing of Hamburg, Lore dies while saving her employer’s son, a Hitler Youth member who secretly performs small acts of anti-fascism. Ilse grows from a passive child, observing events, into an active participant, driven by the same mixed motives as everyone else.
With Ilse as unblinking guide, Charlesworth travels the morally ambiguous alleyways of war to create a deeply satisfying if unsettling read full of richly complicated characters.