The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory

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The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A book that really succeeds in showing the darkness of the Holocaust, and the hope of survival, but does so alongside a modern story that really doesn't fit so well together with it.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 396 Date: September 2019
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781542007238

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Berlin, 1989. Miriam is in the middle of a city freshly united, with the Wall newly broken down and people able to cross at liberty for the first time in decades. She is in the middle of such euphoria, but cannot feel it, for she has not left her father's apartment in weeks, nursing him as he lies dying. One standard bed-bath, however, is very different, when he gasps the name Frieda that she does not recognise – and she sees for the first time ever a tattoo for his camp inmate identity under his watch. One bombshell outside, then, and two inside. And inside her father, Henryk, what is going on, as he has a first person narrative alternating with her story? What will we find happened, as he remembers back to the real Frieda, a young woman that shook him to the core when he was her literature professor? That's right, more bombshells…

This had a lot to intrigue to entertain me, but also a lot that reminded of its status as a debut novel. The introduction of a helpmeet to Miriam when she first ventures out was forgiveable, but a little too full of unlikely coincidence. I also had to doubt a little how our heroine found a few things in the apartment. But the biggest issue was one I actually had qualms about mentioning. It felt like something notable enough to be kept back as a surprise, but as it also fits into that 'trigger warning' category, and as it's too much a part of the book, I decided to not hold back.

Yes, there is a bombshell in Miriam's past, too – she was the victim of a controlling, abusive relationship. Now I didn't like this for the increase in flashbacks it made the novel undertake, as Henryk provided more than enough, and although it was done well – the way we see her scrub and scald her hands to cleanse it off her – it felt ill that the book was trying to compare that with the Holocaust – as if she had suffered as badly as Frieda and the title characters. That is clearly tosh. The book actually has the gall to overtly declare it's not comparing like for like, when it is, and then some time later does it again.

That rankled. But I could still find reasons to make this a book to consider. I've read more than a decent amount about the Holocaust, both fiction and memoir, and this still taught me some details I didn't know, such as the name tattoo originally being on the collarbone area, before they chose the wrist instead. The book shows a suitably emotional side of the whole era – while one aspect of it could be summed up as an adult re-enactment of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it also delves into the issue of collusion, and how much you might feel impelled to tread on others' toes to, well, just survive. Henryk as the character flagged up as a survivor clearly shows one of the effects of being such, but there is much more to tell about the whole Nazi system, and it's also a strong point for this novel that it features those intellectually counter to the Nazi ideal, as opposed to racially opposed.

This, then I thought was strong writing – well researched, compellingly presented, and sensitively done. I also liked the aspect of the book that takes us back to the City on the Edge of Somewhere, as Berlin proved itself to be at that time. Yes, it could have had more of the DNA of my favourite film ever, Goodbye, Lenin!, but it had enough. But I was still unsettled by the modern story's presence – partly because I would never choose to cover self-harming in my reads, but also because I really felt the juxtaposition a little too insensitive, especially when it blew up into full-on Hollywood melodrama. Rest assured, though, that that could be a hurdle easily leapt by this novel on its way to being one of your favourites.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Of course, you might wish to file this next to The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, the most notable example of love-among-the-ashes-of-humans fiction.

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