A daughter strives to unlock the secrets of her mother’s past, which her mother has ample reason to hide, in Epstein’s (The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, 2013, etc.) third novel.
Three women carry the narrative weight of this searing novel, set in pre– and post–World War II Berlin and New York City in the 1970s and '80s. Now that she's a mother herself, Ava, a struggling artist in the East Village, is determined to confront her own mother, Ilse, who left her in an orphanage in the waning days of the war, eventually retrieving her but never telling her the identity of her father or much about her own past. Ilse’s sections, set in the '30s during the years leading up to Kristallnacht, make it abundantly clear why. Ilse joins the Hitler Youth female division, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, and becomes an enthusiastic Nazi, to the horror of her former best friend, Renate. As the noose slowly tightens around Berlin’s Jews, Renate and her family are not immediately affected by the oppressive racial laws, since she and brother Franz are Mischlings, only half Jewish; her mother, a psychiatrist, is “Aryan” and her father considers himself a Lutheran until the Nazi registration system exposes his Jewish ancestry. The stories of Ilse and Renate are viscerally quotidian in detailing how Nazism distorts their adolescence. Renate’s gradual ostracism by her school—formerly a top student, she is subjected to racism-dictated grade deflation—and even by those she counted as friends, is excruciating to read. The characterization of Ilse is more challenging, but her enthusiastic embrace of the lifestyle of a Hitler devotee is authentically depicted, as is her dogged refusal to be disillusioned despite various rude awakenings to the role envisioned for women in the Reich. Representing the German postwar generation, Ava holds her own here and is not merely an afterthought; her relationship with Ulrich, son of an Auschwitz victim, is particularly poignant and echoes the friendship of Ilse and Renate, which neither ever truly renounces, at least psychically.
A vividly written and stark chronicle of Nazism and its legacies.