“Every year the saint came to the house. When Ursula was eight she and her brother Anton knelt on the window seat and looked out from the living-room window. The saint’s white beard glinted in the torchlight; his tall bishop’s hat nearly touched the lintel and in his fat-fingered hands he clutched the curling golden staff and ancient book. His cheeks were dark like smoked ham, eyes half buried by pudgy lids – burnt currants peeping from an over-risen cake. Breath plumed from his purplish lips. Ursula looked for feet beneath his robes. Was he touching the ground or did he hover just above it?”
I met Holly Müller at a book signing at Waterstones in Cardiff, with no intention of buying a book at all. However, when I got talking to this fabulous lady I knew I had to buy this book. Not only is the cover beautiful, but the premise of the novel is stunning. It had me on the edge of my seat throughout, with a lot of moments where I had to just put it down to think. I’m still not sure I’m okay.
Set during the course of the Second World War, in Nazi occupied Austria, we follow the Hildesheim family, in particular Ursula. Her brother, Anton, is a member of the Hitler Youth and is increasingly becoming more and more vindictive. Especially as Ursula befriends Schosi Hillier, a boy who is seen to be increasingly more odd than everyone else in the novel. The plot develops as Ursula starts to develop as a young woman, which just shows the strength that it takes to grow up during such a dark period in history.
What I think Müller does incredibly well is show the Second World War in a new and interesting way. I had never seen a novel written from the other side, where there was a character who was was on the side of the Nazi regime. I had also never really read anything about Austria during the war, as much of the literature written by British historical fiction writers about World War II centres on the British involvement. Instead this focusses on Austria and running throughout the plot line is the involvement of the Russian forces.
Additionally, I love that the plot of this novel doesn’t let up. It’s pacing could be seen as infuriating at times but this is reasonable in the build up of tension for later scenes. Particularly during part 2 there is a lot of waiting around on the part of Ursula and the farmer Herr Esterbauer, but I found this really important as we get to learn about Schosi’s experiences. The two together really increase the tension throughout and there is something so intense about this part that wants you to keep reading and willing on characters.
Ursula is an interesting protagonist. She’s growing up throughout this novel and she can be seen as quite immature towards the start. She’s a known thief and she speaks out of turn, not really knowing or understanding anything that is going on. There is an understanding that something has happened between her and her brother, perhaps nothing sinister but there is a close relationship there, and this isn’t really discussed until the end of the novel when Ursula has grown up a little and knows better. Throughout we discover that Ursula is incredibly strong, and sometime this childish impulse helps her to gain a better understanding of herself and the situations she finds herself in.
Schosi is also a character I love in this book. He’s, what I assume to be, autistic and is often hidden away by his mother. He’s got a piece of cloth that he winds around his finger when he’s nervous and a stutter and I think he is a beautifully written character. He doesn’t understand an awful lot, and gets scared incredibly easily, and I love that Ursula feels such a close connection to him. He’s incredibly childlike and innocent, thrust into the horror of a war torn state, forced to withstand torturous “treatments” and I think that Müller did an incredibly good job discussing the treatment of the disabled and those with mental illness during the war.
I think my only qualm would be that the time frames all became a little fuzzy for me. I didn’t really know what time of the year it was, or if we’d even changed year. This made it a little more confusing towards the end as I didn’t know how old our protagonist was, or be able to work out from that the members of her family’s ages. This is often a confusion I have with novels that seem to span years, but there’s no real time specification.
Overall this novel was a really tense exploration of the Second World War from a new perspective from a very strong and new narrative voice. I think that Holly Müller’s writing style lends itself to the darker side of literature, unafraid to tackle dark issues, whilst remaining an element of classical literature through her descriptions of settings and scenery. This book was a complete success that I would urge anyone with an interest in the genre, or not as the case may be, to give this book a go, despite how terrifyingly daunting its size looks.
Total pages – 455
Total read time – Untimed
Rating /10 – 7.5
Recommend – Yes