My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pam Jenoff, former diplomat for the US State Department and noted writer of historical fiction that focuses on WWII, learned about The Unknown Children and European circuses that helped to rescue Jews when she visited Yad Vashem. The two women protagonists in this novel, Astrid and Noa, meet each other and become allies - almost sisters - because of these two specific aspects of the Shoah.
Pretty blonde Noa, driven from her Dutch home by her enraged and shamed family for becoming pregnant by a German soldier, is forced to give up her baby boy by a German home for unwed mothers. The only work she can find is cleaning a tiny train station, through which cars pass daily, carrying Jews. One day, she dares to investigate faint sounds from a stopped train. She opens the door and reels from the stench surrounding piles of babies, some living, most dead. No one is guarding this train; these prisoners are unlikely to escape. On an impulse, she takes one of the babies from the car and runs - and runs - almost dying in the bleak cold of a German forest.
Astrid, a Jewish circus trapeze artist, had left the circus to marry a German soldier. He divorces her, one day, on orders from above: the Reich has ordered all Aryan soldiers to divorce their Jewish wives. She finds her way back to where a rival Jewish circus is rehearsing for its spring season; her own family's circus has been destroyed, its members probably shipped to camps or killed on the spot. The owner, Herr Neuhoff, remembering her from childhood and knowing that she is a star aerialist, hires and protects her to the extent of his power - mostly bribes of money and cognac to the soldiers whose inspections terrify them all.
Noa and the baby, Theo,are taken in by the circus and allowed to stay - if she can become a trapeze performer. Astrid is tasked to train her. The reader meets other circus members, including a Jewish clockmaker and a bitter, disillusioned clown - once Russian royalty - whose act becomes too political for safety.
The novel is told from two viewpoints - Astrid's and Noa's. Each woman is given extraordinary powers of description and observation, giving the reader a gritty, ultra-realistic experience of the life these itinerants have lived, and continue to live as they make do with rations, deprivation, and virtual enslavement in a country becoming more brutal as its power begins to wane.
This is an engrossing, nightmare-producing, rich book. I read it in a day, a long day, punctuated by dark thoughts and tears. Rating it has been difficult. The writing is pungent and specific. But it fails, to me, in the sameness of the voices of the two young women, whose lives have been so different but whose vocabulary and phrasing are so alike, and in plotting, especially in the last third of the book. Nonetheless, the book is important, and gives the reader a glimpse into lesser-known aspects of the Shoah.
I received this book as an ARC.
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