After having been hit by a German V2 and her affair with a high rank staff member of the ministry almost exposed, Kay Caton-Walsh, officer in the WAAF, asks to be transferred to directly contribute to the fight against the new super weapon of the enemy. Her wish is granted and so she finds herself with dozen of women in Mechelen, Belgium, where they are trained to calculate the origin of the rockets. These are launched from the Netherlands under the surveillance of Dr Rudi Graf who once dreamt of sending rockets into space and was fascinated by his and his friend Wernher von Braun’s advances in science. But since the Nazis have taken over their skills and inventions, he not only feels increasingly uncomfortable but serious questions what he has done.
Altogether, the V2 killed more than 4,000 people, wounded more than 10,000 in London and Antwerp and destroyed thousands of houses in the British capital. Robert Harris has again chosen a historical topic for his novel which outlines the human character in a complicated world. One might expect the Second World War and the Nazi regime to become finally a bit boring, Harris, however, just as in other books before, turns it into a suspenseful story with interesting characters entangled in the contradictions of their time.
The author addresses several core questions while the novel is fast paced and gripping from the start. The German engineer who never intended his creations to be used to kill people but was fascinated by space travel and what by diligence and an inventive talent could be created. Seeing what has become of his dream, he has to make a lonely decision and to come to terms with his role in the war.
On the other hand, Kay is full of patriotism and ready to risk a lot to participate in the fight against the evil, terrorising missile. Quite astonishingly, it is a group of women who do the complicated calculations when mathematics were considered the supreme discipline of men. Yet, their competences do not hinder their male colleague from looking down on them. She is also the one in contact with the local population who is torn between the fronts and after years of occupation not sure whom to trust anymore.
Even though the whole plot is centred around the missile, it is the human aspects which render it interesting and thought provoking. Just as in his other novels, a brilliant combination of fact and fiction which is a terrific read and informative, too.
WW2 is raging across Europe and has also reached Hungary. Gina Vitay’s father is a general and as such well aware of the dangers that come with Hitler’s advance. He decides to hide his daughter in Matula Institute, a boarding school on the eastern border. Gina is all but used to strict policies as she finds in the closed Puritan world and it does not take too long until she has set the other girls against her. There are rules and there are other rules, breaking the official ones is not a problem, but undermining the secret laws of the girls is punished with exclusion and contempt. It will take Gina a lot of effort to win back the girls’ confidence which she will desperately need since there are dangers looming over her that she is not at all aware of.
Magda Szabó was a Hungarian writer who was forbidden to publish by the Communist Party after being labelled an enemy of the state. “Abigail” is one of her best-known novels which was first published in 1970 and has since then been translated into numerous languages, however, this is the first time it is available in English. In 1993, Szabó was nominated member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and she is one of the most widely translated and read female Hungarian writers.
The novel cleverly interweaves friendship with the events of the Second World War. The notion of a world of black and white does not hold out against reality anymore and telling a friend from an enemy has become a difficult task. The world of the boarding school is walled off from the outside, the approaching war does not play a role, yet, for Gina, she has to fight her own battles within the old walls of the institution. The dynamics of a group of girls enclosed is very well portrayed in the novel, they develop their own set of order and exercise law if necessary. An interesting aspect is the character of “Abigail”, a statue which come to help if addressed by one of the girls. Until the very end, the readers can only speculate who is behind it and supports the girls against the strict direction of the school.
The spirit of the time of its origin can be read in every line, “Abigail” is far from today’s Young Adult or coming-of-age novels. The beautiful language and lovely details of the characters make it an outstanding document of its time and still worth reading fifty years after it has been written.
Ruth Gilmartin, alleinerziehende Mutter, die ihr Lebensunterhalt als Fremdsprachenlehrerin für Privatschüler in Oxford verdient, macht sich zunehmend Sorgen um ihre Mutter. Diese verhält sich seltsam und fühlt sich offenbar verfolgt. Ruth nimmt das nicht ernst, bis ihre Mutter ihr Tagebücher zum Lesen gibt, in denen sie eine unglaubliche Geschichte niedergeschrieben hat: Sally Gilmartin ist nicht immer die brave britische Hausfrau und Mutter gewesen, als geborene Eva Delectorskaya wurde sie 1939 von den Briten als Spionin engagiert und hat gleich mehrere Anschläge überlebt. In den Wirren des Zweiten Weltkrieges gelang es ihr unterzutauchen und sich eine neue Identität zu verschaffen, diese, befürchtet sie, ist nun aufgeflogen und mit ihrem ehemaligen Liebhaber Lucas Romer ist noch eine Rechnung offen. Um diese zu begleichen, benötigt sie die Hilfe ihrer Tochter.
William Boyds neunter Roman gewann 2006 den renommierten Costa Book Award, der eher die populären Romane und weniger die hohe Literatur honoriert. Nichtsdestotrotz reiht er sich damit in eine beachtliche Anzahl bekannter Autoren wie Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Colm Tóibin, A.L. Kennedy, Ian McEwan oder Salman Rushdie ein. Mit der Spionagegeschichte erfüllt er auch wieder genau das, was ich von ihm erwartet hatte: eine spannende Geschichte mit interessanten Figuren und einer Hintergrundstory, die durchaus einiges zum Nachdenken liefert.
Sally/Evas Spionagevergangenheit wird in Rückblenden durch die Tagebücher erzählt, die die Handlung der Gegenwart unterbrechen, diese aber unweigerlich in einem gewissen Licht erscheinen lassen. Ihre Tochter Ruth hatte eine Affäre mit einem Deutschen, aus der ihr Sohn Jochen hervorgegangen ist. Unerwartet nistet sich ein anderer Deutscher bei ihr ein, vorgeblicher Onkel des Jungen, und kurz danach sucht auch noch eine zwielichtige junge Frau Unterschlupf. Im Oxford des Jahres 1976 sind die Ereignisse der RAF in Deutschland durchaus bekannt und je tiefer sich Ruth in die schmutzigen Angelegenheiten der Agenten vertieft, desto naheliegender ist es auch, dass ihre beiden ungebetenen Gäste nicht ohne Grund nach England geflüchtet sind. Das Auftauchen der Polizei und deren vage Fragen schüren nur noch ihren Verdacht.
Das Spiel mit Identitäten und Wahrheiten gelingt Boyd meisterhaft. Die Spannung – die gleich in beiden Handlungssträngen vorhanden ist – dosiert er wohlüberlegt bis zum Höhepunkt und der unausweichlichen Konfrontation. Dem großen Erzähler von Spionageromanen John Le Carré steht er meines Erachtens in nichts nach. Auch wenn der Plot durchaus gewisse Ähnlichkeiten zu anderen Romanen wie Jennie Rooneys „Red Joan“ [dt. Geheimnis eines Lebens] oder Kate Atkinsons „Transcription“ [dt. Deckname Flamingo] aufweist – wobei Boyd seinen bereits 2006 verfasste und damit vor den anderen genannten lag – kann mich das Setting immer wieder faszinieren, vor allem wissend, dass es zahlreiche dieser Geschichten real gab und gibt und viele Spione des Zweiten Weltkrieges später ein unbehelligtes Leben mitten unter uns führten.
Tariq is 19 when he finds his Moroccan home too small, too far away from the real world. Paris is the place he wants to be, not just because of the dreams of the city of lights he has, but also to follow his deceased mother’s traces who was born and raised there. On his way, he meets a young girl and together they arrive in the French capital without any place to stay or any idea of how to earn money. Hannah, an American researcher twice their age, accommodates them; what was meant as an arrangement just for a couple of days becomes a cohabitation for months in which Tariq not only discovers that he is not only ignorant of Europe’s history, but also of the struggles between France and its former colonies in northern Africa. But also Hannah not only makes progress in her work on women in the second World War, but also in her personal love life.
I was eager to read Sebastian Fault’s novel because seeing the French history through the eyes of a Moroccan teenager seemed to be quite an interesting perspective. The author certainly has chosen quite a unique approach to history, since it is mainly strangers who do not actually have a family bond or personal connection to what has happened and thus, can look at things a bit more freely.
What I liked best was actually Tariq’s education through the metro, especially since he didn’t learn because he was told to, but because he felt a need and wanted to. This informal kind of education lead to a lot more depth than any formal teaching could ever have provided. And it clearly showed that this kind of knowledge has a certain relevance in everyday life and it not just dusty knowledge of no practical use.
Even though the whole set-up of the novel was not really authentic – which middle-aged American woman would ever house a refugee in her expensive Parisian flat and how could a Moroccan teenager move around Paris without ever being eyed closely by the police or the people around him – I enjoyed reading it, especially since the narration of the past events was much more inspiring than the plot set in the present.