Thursday, April 25, 2024

Anna Ellory - The Rabbit Girls

Berlin, 1989. As the wall between East and West falls, Miriam Winter cares for her dying father, Henryk. When he cries out for someone named Frieda – and Miriam discovers an Auschwitz tattoo hidden under his watch strap – Henryk’s secret history begins to unravel.
Searching for more clues of her father’s past, Miriam finds an inmate uniform from the Ravensbrück women’s camp concealed among her mother’s things. Within its seams are dozens of letters to Henryk written by Frieda. The letters reveal the disturbing truth about the ‘Rabbit Girls’, young women experimented on at the camp. And amid their tales of sacrifice and endurance, Miriam pieces together a love story that has been hidden away in Henryk’s heart for almost fifty years.
Inspired by these extraordinary women, Miriam strives to break through the walls she has built around herself. Because even in the darkest of times, hope can survive.

Comment: I brought this book from the library for the single reason it would feature WWII somehow, and I tend to enjoy stories about this theme. I had not heard of the author before, so it was a gamble.

In this book we meet protagonist Miriam, a German citizen in 1989, right as the Wall is coming down in Berlin, and she is taking care of her father Henryk, who was a young man at the time the Nazis created the concentration camps. Since their family isn't of Jewish origin, Miriam never assumed he could have been in one, but that is precisely what she discovers. At the same time, she finds some old things among the belongings of her late mother, including many letters in hidden pockets of a uniform from a concentration camp. The mystery leads her to a library, for some letters are in French and while she is in the process of finding out what had happened, who is Frieda, their author and whose name her father now calls so often, Miriam also needs to take care of her own situation, which her ex isn't making easy....

I will start right away by saying that I don't think the experience of reading this novel was as engaging as I imagined. I do like the theme and even though a lot of the books with it include terrible scenes/situations and emotions, it all (usually) pays off when the characters gain something at the end, even if it's only closure or peace of mind. I would say that in this book this expectation wasn't met because the main character, Miriam, isn't living through that time, she is only reading about it, and those who were there aren't as well fleshed out as I'd have liked.

To explain a little better: Miriam is a woman who seems to be going through a bad phase in her life. It isn't immediately obvious why, but when we learn what is going on, I was able to quickly root for her to gain the upper hand against her ex, who was incredibly manipulative. This was tricky to guess, though, due to the writing style. I was definitely not a fan of it; the way I saw things, the author muddled up a lot of things and the fact the chapters are short can seem a great choice to make reading more fluid, but it also meant a lot of things switched from one thing to the other too quickly.

Miriam is also a hard protagonist to understand and perhaps this is intentional so that we cannot be certain if Miriam is such a reliable narrator as we want, but in this type of novel, with this theme, was this really necessary? I applaud the author for her ideas, but the execution felt as if she wanted to include too many things at the same time and this made for a slightly confusing story.

Therefore, we have Miriam's plight, and while she is dealing with personal issues, she is taking care of her ill father, who might not live much longer. Al these feelings and situations make for an already dramatic and angst heavy story, and then we have the WWII content through the letters. Perhaps I've read enough WWII stories or it was really the writing style, but despite the fact the descriptions were as devastating as in other books, somehow I managed to keep some detachment. I can't say if this is very bad or good to the point that I didn't crumble because of what the narrator of the letters suffered and of what she witnessed.

Perhaps, in part, my issue is, again, with the writing, which didn't touch me emotionally. However, there is also the characters themselves, mainly Miriam for what I already mentioned, but her father Henryk and the letter writer Frieda didn't seem to be characterized in a way I'd say is compelling, and although their story is meant to be dramatic and impossibly desolating, it was still about a pair I could not connect with for more reasons than simply not liking them.

The title is related to the concentration camp descriptions and no matter how similar to real life events for many people who suffered immensely, I should say I also didn't connect emotionally with them. I can feel sad and angry on their behalf, but the way the story is told just didn't win me over. I saw this was the author's first book and knowing this, I think it can be easier to understand why the author wanted to use as much information researched as possible, and why she might have felt she had to add several elements, to perhaps make her story different. 

The author has another book published, if I find it at the library one day, I might try it too, but I will admit I'm in no hurry to do so.
Grade: 6/10

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