“The Berlin Girl” by Mandy Robotham. Avon. 400 pp. $26.99. Review provided by The Washington Post.
The specter of 1930s Germany hangs over modern society, particularly when we ask how everyday citizens do little to arrest the evil in their midst. It’s a question British novelist Mandy Robotham also ponders in her new novel, “The Berlin Girl,” the story of fictional English journalist Georgina “Georgie” Young, which pays homage to real-life journalists like Sigrid Schultz, Clare Hollingworth and Martha Gellhorn (whose celebrity as “Mrs. Hemingway” eclipsed her stellar photojournalism).
Robotham contrasts the menacing late 1937 Berlin into which Georgie arrives with the city’s principled foreign press corps, led by Chicago Herald Tribune chief Bill Porter. Students of history may recognize his inspiration as William Shirer, whose brilliant “Berlin Diary” still makes a chilling read. Not everyone fell under Adolf Hitler’s spell.
Georgie, horrified by the quotidian violence she witnesses, begins writing a weekly “Postcard from Berlin,” painting miniature portraits of encroaching terror. Meanwhile, she flirts with danger, accepting dates with SS officer Kasper Vortsch, whom she meets at the chic Residenz-Casino. She swoons a bit when he plans a picnic lunch and takes her for a ride in a dirigible, but when he sweeps her off to an evening at a club that may or may not be within the walls of a concentration camp, she understands this is no sweet-natured courtship.
Perhaps Georgie’s development is partly why Robotham uses the word “girl” in her title, much like a lot of commercial fiction in the last decade. Most of the “girls” in these titles are full-grown women, even if some of them have personal growth to attend to. When it comes to matters of the heart, the Georgie who lands in Berlin has little experience. Once that innocence is gone, she wonders how she could have fallen for a Nazi, before realizing that Kaspar was manipulating her as easily as his commander in chief manipulates stadium crowds.
Meanwhile, Georgie’s driver, Rubin Amsel, approaches her with his own dilemma. His brother-in-law Elias has been rounded up by the Nazis and taken to a camp. Rubin, his wife, Sara, and their two children suffer through the terrors of Kristallnacht before reluctantly agreeing to have the children sent away to England.
As Georgie, Rubin and her colleague Max plot an escape for the older Amsels, they draw closer to a dark secret brewing north of Berlin, near Oranienburg, the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The trio and their friends discover information that could help the Allies while impeding Hitler’s deadly “Final Solution.”
Sadly, we know that interference did not happen. Georgie and Max manage to wreak some havoc, but they also feel that their actions only go so far to combat evil. And yet, Robotham’s epilogue, a series of newspaper stories, shows the far-reaching effects of individual valor. Perhaps this deeply researched and heartfelt book will inspire future observers of evil to take action.
– Reviewed by Bethanne Patrick, who is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”