Review: Hannah and Emil by Belinda Castles

Title: Hannah and Emil

Author: Belinda Castles

Published: Allen & Unwin July 2012

Synopsis: Based on the lives of the author’s own grandparents, Hannah & Emil is a remarkable story of enduring love set against the backdrop of World War II. As post-World War I Germany heads toward collapse, Emil finds himself clashing with the political forces gaining ascendency. Hannah, a Russian Jew in the West End of London, leaves home for Europe. In Brussels, working for the trade unions, she meets the devastated Emil, who has just crossed the border on foot from Nazi Germany, leaving tragedy in his wake. After they make a new life in England, war strikes, and Emil, an enemy alien, is transported to Australia. Determined to find him, Hannah sets off on the dangerous journey across the seas … Read an extract

Status: Read from November 16 to 17, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy TheReadingRoom/Allen & Unwin}

My Thoughts:

Hannah and Emil is a novel pieced together from real letters, diaries and family lore, interspersed with the vivid imagination of the author. Based on the lives of Belinda Castles’ grandparents, it relates a remarkable story of courage, love, loss and longing.

Told in alternating first person and third person chapters, advancing the years from 1902 to 1972, the novel traces the remarkable story of Emil, a working class German forced to flee his homeland, leaving his family behind, as the Nazi party gained power, and Hannah, a middle class, Russian Jew in England whose social conscience and independent spirit led her through Europe as a journalist and interpreter. Their meeting in a Brussels cafe, sparked a love affair that transcended the political, religious and social strictures of the time.

Emil’s story, as a German refuge from the Nazi party in Britain, is not one often explored in wartime fiction and I thought his forbearance of his fate was admirable. While I was vaguely aware that foreigners were interred for a period, I hadn’t given it much thought and I wasn’t aware that many were sent to camps in Australia. At least it seems they were treated reasonably well here, though conditions were still difficult and the enforced separations from loved ones tragic.

I admired Hannah’s ambitious idealism and her strength of character. She was a woman ahead of her time, intelligent, brave and independent. My heart broke for her as her young German guests sung the anti-Jew tune, and Emil’s son rejected her care as tainted. Left alone when Emil is taken, Hannah refuses to slide into despair and instead follows her lover to the other side of the world despite the risks.

The story is enhanced by so closely following the real path of Heinz and Fay. The smaller details of their lives may be creative fiction but their larger joys and agonies are truths that connect them as individuals with history.
Personally, I would have liked to have seen more of the early relationship between Hannah and Emil, essentially the pair meet and then the story jumps ahead three years where we find them living together in England. I imagine that those years would have been some of the most difficult and joyful for the couple and I think more detail about this period would have fully explained their bond, given the sacrifices they both must have had to make to be together.

I enjoyed Hannah and Emil, I found the historical details fascinating and the relationship to the authors family history gives it an additional layer of poignancy. This is a novel Castles can be proud of and a beautiful way to honour her remarkable grandparents.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Daystarz Books
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 08:08:59

    I have this one on my shelf and am tempted to read it straight away but am waiting till the Aussie Readers Summer Reading Challenge (Goodreads) starts. Thanks for the great review Shelleyrae it’s made me even more impatient to read it.

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  2. Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 14:56:19

    This one sounds very moving, particularly given the real-life inspiration, and the fact that the story is obviously so close to the author. Thanks for the review!

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  3. Jenn J McLeod ~ Come home to the country...
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 16:38:27

    Oh lovely. thank you for reviewing this book. I love Belinda’s River Baptist and this novel is on my TBR pile. I am fortunate to have Belinda as my editor for my upcoming release and her writing (and editing) is inspiring:)

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  4. Margaret Lynette Sharp
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 22:54:27

    Being based on real life is a definite plus! Sounds fascinating!

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