In Roy’s (Once Upon a Time in Venice, 2007) novella, a Jewish family bears witness to Nazism and apartheid.
“[I]t’s hard to believe that little man will be anything,” says teenage Inge to her identical twin sister, Eva, during a 1932 concert at the Berlin Philharmonie. “I think he is somewhat comical…don’t you?” Of course, the man in question is no laughing matter: over the next six years, Adolf Hitler will transform the “cultural jewel” of Berlin into a city ravaged by anti-Semitism and teetering on the brink of war. Initially, none of Eva and Inge’s family members know what to make of the Nazis; their parents, Oskar and Helene, assume that the threat will blow over, while their younger brother Max urges everyone to flee the country. After surviving the horrific Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, the family wisely heeds Max’s advice. Using his connections to the resistance movement, he manages to sneak them out of Germany—first to Antwerp, Belgium, and then on a globe-trotting journey that takes them to France and Rio de Janeiro. In 1944, the family settles in Cape Town, South Africa, where they finally enjoy calm and prosperity. The new restrictions of apartheid, however, force Eva, Inge, and the others to choose between fighting against oppression, fleeing once more, or protecting themselves by ignoring injustice. Roy’s narrative, based on her grandparents’ own flight from Nazi-era Germany to Cape Town, often feels assembled from clichés rather than specific, intimate details. Too often, the prose and dialogue rely on platitudes (“It was a constant and painful sight to watch human beings being cruel to other human beings”) and awkward exposition (“It’s ludicrous that Hitler blames the Jews for taking over the country, yet we are only one percent of the population”), which makes the story feel secondhand and never lived-in. Fortunately, the lives of Roy’s supporting cast feel more immediate; for example, the chapters focusing on Trudy, the twins’ best friend–turned-Nazi; and Zoe, the family’s South African maid, offer a more challenging, richer reading experience.
Despite some promising subplots, this historical tale only skims the emotional surface of two of the 20th century’s most devastating chapters.