A Nazi official, his wife, and a traveling performer struggle to rebuild their lives in the immediate aftermath of World War II in Kosack and Overmann’s historical novel.
With “the chaos of the Nazis” behind him, former Gestapo higher-up Franz Tegge must now “survive the peace.” After he turns himself over to the Americans, he’s plucked from a POW camp by the U.S. Army’s secret service, which enlists him to track down fellow Nazis trying to evade capture by leaving Berlin. As Franz keeps tabs on his former colleagues, his wife, Mathilde, performs forced labor with other Nazi wives, clearing away rubble for long hours, clambering over “fragments of cobblestones left by burned-out tanks, eviscerated cars, tipped over advertisement pillars.” She brings her measly rations home to her extended family, including her own two children; her sister, a pious pastor’s wife; and her sister’s two kids. On a dare, two of the youngsters climb a bombed-out apartment building, and tightrope walker Camillo Baumgartner saves Mathilde’s eldest, Karla, from falling to her death. His act of generosity sparks a slow-burning flirtation between him and Mathilde, as well as plenty of raised eyebrows from neighborhood gossips, who disapprove of Germans socializing with “Gypsies.” Keja, a performer in Camillo’s troupe, likewise objects to the budding romance; however, she soon finds out that Camillo’s involvement with the Tegge clan may have less to do with his love for Mathilde than his past with Franz. As they use elements of classic melodrama, the authors sometimes let their prose overheat: “Irrational, powerful fear tore at Mathilde’s stomach as her fear became a fear of fear itself.” For the most part, though, the duo’s English-language debut finds emotional resonance in even its smallest details, such as a 2-year-old fast asleep despite the thunder of bombs outside his door or a starving teenager relishing her first piece of spearmint gum. Although the Franz and Camillo chapters push the narrative forward, Mathilde is the novel’s emotional core—a multifaceted woman who’s all too aware that her “dread over what Franz had done” casts a shadow over her choices.
A complex, compassionate novel about Germans coming to terms with their actions during WWII.