Reviewed by Marisa Deshaies
Readers love war stories—the glory, the heroism, the action, the romance, the idea of fighting for the greater good. All of these themes, in conjunction with the inspirational notion that war eventually leads to the betterment of a people and its society, make for stories in which readers can revel in good versus evil. All war stories are appealing for these themes, but publishers and authors alike recognize that stories set during the World War II time period are fan favorites.
I admit, as a reviewer and reader, that I fall into the category of readers who gravitate towards these novels. Ever since I discovered the movie Pearl Harbor in 2001 I have diligently read and watched every book and movie on World War II history that I could get my hands on. Hannah & Emil, a novel of a couple who find themselves in the midst of the European crisis during World War II, is now a novel added to my section of war stories from which I both learned new facts about this time period and relished in the heroism and romance of the Greatest Generation.
Hannah & Emil, from author Belinda Castles, is a fictionalized story of the author’s grandparents’ adventures, misfortunes, and triumphs during the European crisis of World War II. Castles takes real-life accounts of her grandparents’ lives but is careful to fictionalize details, characters, and dialog for her family’s privacy. The novel is a story of Hannah and Emil, two young adults whose lives are forever altered by the political turmoil of the European continent during the first half of the nineteenth century. Beginning with the main characters’ childhoods in England and Germany, respectively, Castles shows how backgrounds inevitably influence the present. Hannah, the daughter of a well-off British emigrant from Russia, is offered every luxury imaginable while growing up. She appreciates education, becomes a translationist and writer, and travels all across the Continent publishing political pieces advocating for equality. Emil, the son of working class parents from Germany, is shown as a blue-collar boy who deeply loves his country but feels discontent with his homeland upon returning broken and battered from the First World War.
Amongst the political turmoil of the Continent Hannah and Emil emerge as characters with ideas and ideals about the direction the world around them is going. Hannah, involved in the Labour party from a young age, desires to travel the world to write about her surroundings; Emil joins his father in protesting the spread of Nazism in Germany but quickly finds out the protestors are not kindly taken upon. Upon a particularly violent protest in which Emil participates, he finds himself displaced in Brussels, Belgium as a refugee and unable to ever return to Germany for fear of certain death. Here he meets Hannah, who has taken a job as a translator in Brussels after completing college in London and teaching in Paris. The two meet and begin a relationship about halfway through Hannah & Emil, which is in my opinion when the pacing of the novel quickens after a slow beginning that does not always cover necessary or intriguing discussion to the story. The latter half of the novel covers the 1930s-1970s; Hannah and Emil’s employment as hostel owners, his displacement to Australia and her adventure after him, and their return to England upon the end of the war. Any further details will spoil the story, but suffice to say that those readers who choose this novel for its World War II history should find the latter half of the story more fulfilling than the beginning because of the displacement plotline.
Regardless of any alterations to her grandparents’ story, any reader—World War II aficionado or otherwise—will appreciate the unique approach taken to the events in the novel. Nevertheless, Hannah & Emil is not the typical World War II novel: yes there is romance, yes there is discussion over Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, yes there is mention of the persecution of the Jewish people; but, Hannah & Emil is not a story about the handsome soldier who goes off to war and leaves his young bride-to-be to find satisfaction in work at home. Hannah & Emil is also not a story of a brave young adult who takes in a refugee against her parents’ wishes or one who is persecuted in a concentration camp but survives against all odds. Castles’ novel is a story set during World War II, but very little of the novel actually deals with the intricacies or history of this time period. Readers who desire complete immersion into a World War II setting, as I assumed I would be from reading the back copy of this book, will be disappointed in the limited details that come across in Hannah & Emil.
Castles’ writing style and the structure of the novel also leave something to be desired in this book. Hannah & Emil spans many years, alters each chapter through each character and a point of view, and does not always utilize complete sentences. The results of these choices on Castles’ part make for a novel that lacks in characterization and feels choppy in its prose. Hannah, in my opinion is the more interesting character out of the two protagonists; her desire to consistently push herself in her education and employment is unique for women of that time period. She is also stubborn—I enjoyed her refusal to take no for an answer as she fought to be reunited with Emil. Readers also know Hannah better because her point of view is first person, so novel literally reads as if it is her diary. Readers do not, unfortunately, know Emil as well because his story is so disjointed over his years of war-time fighting, displacement, and hospitalized visits. Neither character ever truly shares their emotions or explains to readers why any decision was made for personal reasons or within historical context. For example, readers who do not know much about socialism or fascism in Europe during World War II will have difficulty understanding why Emil is displaced to Australia or how he became such a well-known figure to the Nazis.
I did find Hannah and Emil’s romance inspiring in its characters’ determination and genuine feeling for each other; these two fought for their livelihood and their relationships. The fact that this novel is based upon events that actually occurred brings this story to life and reminds readers that events such as these happened and could happen again. Nevertheless, I will not re-read Hannah & Emil because I felt that the first half of the book read slowly and did not add much value to the story. The backstory to these characters’ lives was interesting at a bare minimum, and I would have much preferred more detail about the historical context and plot to the war and displacement camp aspects of Castles’ story.
An alumna of the University of Delaware’s English department, Marisa holds a Master’s degree in professional writing from New England College. Her dream job is to work as an editor for a publishing company. A voracious reader of all types of literature, her favorite genres include the classics, contemporary and historical fiction, Christian fiction, and women’s “chick-lit”.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Allen & Unwin. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.