Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: The German Woman

Kate Zweig is Paul Griner's The German Woman: British by birth, German by marriage. The novel opens in WWI in Prussia at a field hospital that is about to be obliterated. Kate is a nurse and her husband, Horst, a doctor. They escape to Germany, where their lives become sheer misery, filled with terror, hunger, pain and drudgery.

Griner leaves Kate and Horst in Germany and moves into London in WWII. Claus is an American filmmaker living in London, now a reluctant British spy. His story is confusing, told in muddled bits and pieces that reflect his own confusion about his true identity. Born of an Irish father and German mother, he can't figure out to whom he owes his loyalty.

Then Claus meets Kate, who is by now a woman in her mid-40s, who has recently fled Germany to escape the Nazis. We discover, again in bits and pieces, what happened to Kate and Horst in the years between wars. Claus and Kate embark on a romance that is a refuge for both of them in the midst of their war lives. Claus struggles constantly with his role as a spy and with his desire to have his latest film accepted; Kate continues to work as a nurse, which consists mostly of providing medical assistance to civilians caught in the London bombings. They keep secret from each other portions of their pasts, doling out bits and pieces like shards of the broken city all around them.

Eventually, Claus implodes, egged on by his supervisor. Trained as a spy, he becomes suspicious of everyone, including Kate. But Griner keeps the reader guessing too, wondering if Claus is right about Kate—is she a German spy, or just a woman wounded by war?

Griner is a fantastic writer. The images in the novel are powerful and memorable: a splotch of red raspberries against the gray ash, a piano played to soothe starvation, a pig lounging in the sun. I didn't exactly understand all the espionage jargon. I couldn't quite grasp what, exactly, Claus was doing; but that is my own ignorance on war espionage. I was frustrated at times with not being able to understand this large part of the novel, but the story of Claus and Kate was compelling enough to keep reading even without understanding a lot of the historical context.

(Thanks to Bookworm's Dinner for the original recommendation. Other World War II era novels reviewed here.)

1 comment:

Anna said...

I'm glad to see you liked this book, especially since I just bought it a few weeks ago! I've linked to your review on War Through the Generations.