. . . “I didn’t know of Simons’s work until last month, when the editor of this, his second novel, enthused about it. A few weeks later a copy was pressed into my hands by the publisher, but it’s only in the past few days that I have found time to read it.
The English German Girl is a thoroughly researched recreation of the life of a professional Jewish family in Berlin, under the Third Reich. Herr Doktor Klein is an eminent surgeon with three children. As the net begins to tighten on the Jewish community, he refuses to believe it can get any worse. It takes a belated awakening to the brutal truth before he tries to engineer an escape for the whole family. This proves impossible, but he does manage to find a place for his middle child, 15-year-old Rosa, on the Kindertransport, those now famous trains that were allowed to take a limited number of children out of the country. Rosa is despatched to reluctant relatives in England, from where it is hoped she can find work for the rest of the Kleins. Meanwhile, war draws closer, and the prospects of fleeing grow slim.
I’m not usually keen on heavily plotted or highly researched novels. The English German Girl is both, and although its opening pages are well written and atmospheric, it describes a scene many readers – at first glance – will be familiar with: the sinister advance of Nazism across Germany, and the fearfulness of those who are about to be annihilated with appallingly thorough slowness.
I prefer history told lightly, with scant period detail. Yet there is something distinctive about this story that wormed its way past my prejudices. For a start, the faintly old-fashioned simplicity of style nicely complements its characters and their times. Also, there’s a powerful sense from the start that this is neither a historical novel nor a romance, nor a mere adventure, although it’s all three. Instead, it is an artful fusion of fact and fiction, the author using real events and his own conversations with Holocaust survivors to create a steely, dignified, unvarnished portrait of those times. We might think we’ve read everything there is to know about this era, but Simons offers fresh details that renew the sense of shock.
Best of all, though, and the most important ingredient for any good novel, is the author’s skill with character. He brings a shrewd eye to each, making memorable individuals where it would be easy to rely on circumstances for effect. The result is a story with rough edges and a vital cast which gives it the flavour of real life, creating an emotional pull that relies on the reader’s involvement rather than easy sentiment. This may not be the most summery of books, but its success, I predict, will far outlast the season.”