Sunday 18 October 2015

A Female Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because I wrote seven chapters on Nazi Germany in That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions 2013)

Author Jane Thynne.

This review contains some spoilers for Jane Thynne's A Winter Garden and The Scent of Secrets.
Over a month ago at the Berlin airport, I picked up a copy of the novel, A Winter Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2014) by Jane Thynne, an author with whom I was not familiar. I was most interested in finding out whether she had anything new to say about the deeply-lined runes of the Third Reich. Apart from a few academic studies that Thynne acknowledges, I do not recall any novelist that explores as she does the intensity of Nazi misogyny and contempt for women. When I finished it, I ordered the next book in the series, The Scent of Secrets (Doubleday Canada, 2015). In the UK, the same novel is published with the title, A War of Flowers. Unfortunately, the cover of The Scent of Secrets is almost identical to that of A Winter Garden. On the plus side, either Thynne or her publishers made the astute decision to hook the reader by publishing the prelude and chapter of the subsequent entry in the last few pages of the book. She succeeded with me.

A reader might think that Thynne, a former print and television journalist and the wife of author, Philip Kerr, who has written several well-received novels on the Third Reich, might overlap with her husband. But in terms of subject matter and style, they are completely different. Whereas Kerr’s protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is a wise-cracking police officer and later a private detective with a cynical view of the world who has seen the worst of humanity, Thynne’s central character, Clara Vine, whose mother was German and father is English, has been recruited in 1933 by British Intelligence to become a spy while she establishes herself as an actress in Berlin’s Ufa studios as her cover, a process that apparently occurs in the first Clara Vine novel, Black Roses (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Her novels offer a woman’s perspective of the regime as Clara’s task is to gain admittance to the circles of the Nazi wives, and, in The Scent of Secrets, a greater challenge: to win the friendship of the woman closest to Hitler, Eva Braun. But there is a paradox that the series can probably never fully resolve: how can a single, independent and half-English woman have access to and influence in the corridors of power in such a misogynous regime?

Sunday 4 October 2015

Resonating Impressions from Berlin, 2015

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large August 4th and I reproduce here because modern Germany is a central focus for That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013). I add a few more photos on this site.

A section of the Berlin Wall Memorial. (Photo by Bob Douglas)

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."
– Helen Keller
Berlin from my experience is one of the most stimulating cities in the world. As a long-time teacher and student of modern German history, Berlin possesses a fascination for me. Ian Buruma’s Wages of Guilt: Memories of Guilt in Germany and Japan (1994) contrasts Germany’s efforts at reparation with Japan’s denial of its aggression during the war. Nowhere in Germany has any city taken more responsibility to address this vital issue than Berlin. For fiction, Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper (1983), where we meet a diverse gallery of characters from both sides of the Wall, and his novel set after reunification, Eduard’s Homecoming (2000) are both insightful portraits of different periods in Berlin’s history. In the latter, the protagonist returns home from California after he inherits property in what was East Berlin, and is forced to examine both his family history during the Nazi era and his own actions, questioning whether he is just another West German opportunist who is taking advantage of the misfortunes of East Germans.

I still regret that I never travelled there before November 1989. Nonetheless, I have visited the city three times: in the early 1990s shortly after the Wall, the most tangible symbol of the Cold War, came down; ten years later; and for over a week at the end of this summer. Each time, the city resembles, at least in part, an urban palimpsest as it physically and spiritually tries to remake itself after the ordeal of the Third Reich and the tensions of a divided city during the Cold War. For example, the first time we exited from the U-Bahn at the old city centre, Potsdamer Platz, the area was desolate grassland that had lain fallow during the Cold War because it was situated right along the Wall. The second time, modern architecture featuring the Sony Centre, a monolith of glass and steel with a huge tent-like conical roof, showcasing the history of German film (an exciting exhibition), began to spring up. Currently, the building boom with both commercial skyscrapers and high-end residential housing has turned the Platz into the business-entertainment centre of Berlin. And that is just one site, as cranes continue to operate throughout the city both building and renovating. As thrilling as the first two trips were, the latest was the richest in large part because I carried with me a copy of Berlin by Norbert Schürer (Interlink Books, 2015) and participated in four of the eight thematic, reasonably priced, walking tours offered by Insider Tour.