Rocky ride for readers and passengers
The German Girl
Simon & Schuster, £12.99 Reviewed by Anne Garvey
IN 1939, in their luxurious Berlin apartment, the Rosenthal family live in suffocating fear. Outside, garish signs of Nazism decorate squares. Inside, Hannah, the Rosenthals’ 11-yearold daughter, faces the rudeness of her parents’ tenants and the hysteria of her thwarted mother Alma as she waits for a way to escape the net closing around them.
Hannah, Max and Alma then embark on a fantasy of safety on the St Louis. And The
German Girl Armando Lucas Correa who sold all they had to make that bid for freedom. All seems well. The wealthy Rosenthals book into a first-class cabin and begin to enjoy life aboard, Max in a dinner jacket, Alma in a glamorous gown, drinking champagne and dancing. But, as the boat nears Havana, the promise of a haven ruptures. Appeals to President Batista fall on deaf ears. Only 25 or so refugees are allowed to land, including Hannah and her nowpregnant mother; her father is forced to sail back to Europe, and eventual death.
The story is told from the point of view of the child Hannah, but there are problems with this. Unless you are Ian McEwan in Atonement or indeed Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility, it is a limited perspective. It drains the politics — and sometimes the sense — out of the drama. And, when the narrative links forward in time with that of a young girl, Anna, in Manhattan whose father has died in 9/11, there are two 11-year-old girls with grieving mothers who refuse to communicate with them. (Hannah is the eponymous “German Girl” because a photographer snapped her in Berlin while she was out with her friend, and the picture appeared on the cover of a Nazi propaganda magazine.)
The story gets more tenuous when the 2014 Anna turns out to be the great niece of 1938 Hannah marooned in Cuba (despite owning the Manhattan apartment where little Anna now lives) because she feared the Nazis would get as far as America.
The final chapters feature the coming of Fidel Castro in 1959, joined by Gustav (named after the Captain of the St Louis) Alma’s now ne’er-do-well son who has become a callous ideologue intoxicated with revolutionary zeal.
Armando Lucas Correa is a Cuban exile who, in this novel, offers parallels between the Cuban Revolution and the rise of the Nazis, which, when admixed with a story of survival from the Holocaust, is outrageous. This book might have passed muster as a Young Adult novel but the blatantly partisan approach to Cuba’s recent past is something you might not want to put in the way of any student of history, even if he or she could tolerate the relentless world-view of not one but two 11-year-olds.
Correa edits a Spanish American magazine read by millions and he is clearly grinding a well-worn axe here. But he can be a compelling and imaginative writer, though the translation (by Nick Caistor) can be puzzling at times, with such oddities as both Jews in Nazi Germany and dissidents in 1950s Cuba referred to as “worms” .
Anne Garvey is a writer and reviewer