Hannah & Emil is Belinda's fictionalised account of the true story of her grandparents' incredible romance. Hannah, an English Jewish woman, falls in love with Emil, a German trade unionist and anti-Nazi freedom fighter who escapes Germany only to be imprisoned as an enemy alien and ultimately shipped to Australia. The intrepid Hannah follws him here, and Belinda Castles captures perfectly this unusual and fraught relationship as it progresses over the decades.
It is a beautifully written book and an engrossing story.
Castles' writing is always filled with a sense of loss. It is not only the obvious losses of wartime, with the tremendous trauma that accompanies the loss of family, friends and national belonging. There is also throughout the book a nostalgic longing for those things of our lives that we may have put aside, but which, in a quiet moment we suddenly remember. Hannah, for example, thinks of a childhood friend, wondering:
"Where is Boris? Sometimes I fancy I see him in the face of some Homburg-hatted relic tottering out onto the heath and I peer into the face beneath the brim, heart racing, but it is never him."
Her characters are brilliantly evoked, and I felt a great deal of empathy for them in the various stages of their lives. Hannah's almost idyllic childhood, in particular, is created with a richness and an eye for nuance and subtlety that is rare and difficult when writing about childhood. The precocious, intelligent child seems at odds with her contemporaries, her bookishness and capacity for language - later to become her lifeline - setting her apart from the rest:
"It was hot and the boys tipped back on their chairs, the girls with the fashionable hairstyles and nicer shoes showed each other notes, believing themselves clever, unobserved. Imbecilic, I thought, not that they would know what that meant."
Castles' Emil, based so closely on her own grandfather, is a man perpetually trapped and tormented. Locked away in an internment camp in rural Australia, he despises the other refugees with their diverse political affiliations and their propensity to a nostalgia that he cannot allow himself. While they wax lyrical about a lost world of their mother's pfeffernusse (yes, I had to Google that one too), he dwells on a less romanttic world of his own family's loss and victimisation, and his own dour efforts to fit in to a new, Anglo, culture that holds him in suspicion.
This is such an interesting and evocative exercise in fiction. I quickly forgot the factual roots of the story, so lost did I become in Belinda's masterful story-telling. If you are looking for a big, beautiful novel that will take you through the quiet moments of Christmas, I thoroughly recommend Hannah & Emil.
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