Müller, who lives in Wales, adds to the recent spate of novels written about the German experience of World War II with her debut about a young Austrian girl forced to face the moral ambiguities war presents.
In a rural Austrian village in 1944, 13-year-old Ursula lives with her 14-year-old brother, Anton, her 16-year-old sister, Dorli, and their army-widow mother, Mali, who came from a larger town and has never been accepted by the locals. Anton is an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth who gladly kills an escaped prisoner from the local POW camp. Despite her devotion to Anton, Ursula finds herself attracted to independent-minded Sepp, whom her brother considers “a bad type,” and also befriends her gentle, mentally challenged neighbor, Schosi. Schosi’s widowed, compassionately Christian mother, Frau Hillier, shields him from the attention of the local Nazi hierarchy as much as possible, and instead of attending school, he works for local farmer Herr Esterbauer, who feels deep affection for both mother and son. When Mali is shunned at church after beginning an affair with family friend Siegfried, Frau Hillier sits beside her in support. Anton’s behavior becomes increasingly vicious against Schosi; Mali, who has become pregnant; and Siegfried, with terrible consequences for each. The villagers’ lives, barely sustainable as the war winds down, plummet into degradation and depravity once the Russians arrive. Müller explores difficult questions concerning what defines personal morality during a period of collective malevolence. Is Anton, who enjoys drowning cats, evil or merely a troubled child infected by fascism? What to make of a man like Herr Esterbauer, who supports Nazi principles but shows genuine decency (and tenderness) in his protection of Schosi? In Ursula’s coming-of-moral-age story, she learns where she owes loyalty, what she can forgive, and how much she is willing to risk for principles or for love.
Despite a soft landing at the end, this tough, unflinching novel illuminates the cost of war on those most closely affected.