Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2020)
Length: 266 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Love, war, endurance. Debuting author Jenny Lecoat presents an impressive and compelling historical drama with The Viennese Girl, a fantastic read based on a remarkable true story.
June 1940. The inhabitants of the Channel Island of Jersey can only watch as the German army invades and takes complete control of their island without any opposition. Abandoned by the British and forced to fend for themselves, the people of Jersey must get ready to endure a lengthy occupation that will last to the very end of the war.
For young Jewish girl Hedy Bercu this is a nightmare situation. Having already successfully fled from the Nazis when they invaded her home of Vienna, Hedy once again finds herself trapped and persecuted, only this time she has nowhere to escape to. Forced to do everything she can to survive, Hedy tries to hide her true identity and even accepts a job as a translator in the German headquarters. However, Hedy is not content to simply sit back and let the Nazis win without a fight, and she begins to engage in several small acts of resistance which bring her to the attention of a German lieutenant, Kurt Neumann.
Kurt finds himself instantly smitten by the mysterious Hedy, and he attempts to pursue a relationship with her, without knowing about her tragic past. But when Hedy’s attempts at sabotage are discovered, her Jewish heritage is revealed to all and she becomes the most sought-after fugitive on the island. Can Hedy rely on her friends and Kurt to survive, and how will she escape detection from the Nazis on their most isolated and heavily occupied territory?
The Viennese Girl is a great debut novel from television writer Jenny Lecoat, which turned about to be quite an intriguing historical drama that I am really glad that I checked out. A very important thing to know about this novel is that it is actually based on a true story of the Jersey occupation. The main characters contained within this story are all real people, and their tale has been mostly unknown until a recent publication by Dr Gilly Carr in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Lecoat provides an exquisite novelisation of these historical events within The Viennese Girl and turns it powerful and captivating narrative of romance and resistance that follows two real-life star-crossed lovers, Hedy and Kurt, as they attempt to survive a terrible situation. The story is shown from the dual perspectives of Hedy and Kurt, whose different viewpoints show off various aspects of the German occupation of Jersey. This book makes great use of a combination of a dramatic and tension filled storyline, fantastic portrayals of real-life characters, a distinctive historical setting and a compelling romance to make for an amazing read.
The lives of and the relationship between the two main characters, Hedy and Kurt, forms an excellent centre to this book. Both are intriguing characters in their own right. For example, Hedy is a Jewish girl doing everything she can to survive after being trapped by the Nazis a second time. She is rightly bitter and terrified about the entire situation, but brave enough to fight back against the Germans with small acts of sabotage. Naturally, the parts of the book told from Hedy’s point of view are filled with all manner of tension as she is terrified of being taken away by the Nazis, a feeling that only intensifies as the book proceeds. There is also a prevailing sense of loneliness and despair brought on by her situation, the lack of people on Jersey who she can trust and the knowledge of what has happened to her Jewish friends and family back home. Kurt, on the other hand, is a reluctant member of the German army who has become disenfranchised with his more radical Nazi colleagues. He has some rather surprising views for a German officer, and a distinct dislike for many of the people he serves with, and there is a bit of sadness in him as he watches the war consume Jersey. This, and the instant attraction he feels for Hedy, compels him to help her without really knowing anything about her. Kurt then goes to some amazing lengths to help save Hedy in the future once he knows the full detail of her history and manages to outthink some determined opponents.
The author makes sure to spend time exploring both of these characters through the course of the occupation, as well as examining their history, feelings and intentions. Despite all the inherently problematic issues that would occur with such a romance, the two fall in love and start a dedicated relationship. Their romance is an essential part of the story, and I think that Lecoat did a wonderful job showing how such a romance could occur, as well as exploring all the drama that resulted. I liked how the romance managed to help make each of them better, and it healed certain holes in their hearts and minds. I really enjoyed this romance, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised after finishing this book to find that Kurt was a real person who really did fall in love with and help Hedy (due to the unlikely situation, I had assumed that he was either a fictional character or an embellished version of someone). The knowledge that this romance actually happened really enhanced Lecoat’s incredible story for me, and I am rather glad to have seen how it unfolded.
In addition to Hedy and Kurt, I also have to highlight the character of Dorothea Weber (née Le Brocq), who was also a real person featured heavily in Dr Carr’s article. Dorothea was the wife of Hedy’s best friend and fellow refugee Anton, who would eventually become Hedy’s close companion and saviour after she hides Hedy in her house for the later years of the occupation. Dorothea was a rather complex character who has a rather interesting act within this novel, especially when it comes to her relationship with Hedy. For the first half of the book, Hedy sees Dorothea as an interloper and distraction to her friendship with Anton and is a bit annoyed by the attention she gets, her apparent helplessness and obsessions with American films and actresses. However, as the war progresses and Anton is conscripted into the German army, their relationship grows, especially as both of them face their own form of persecution. While Hedy is oppressed for her Jewish heritage, Dorothea faces ostracism from her friends and family for marrying an Austrian, especially one who ends up in the German army, and is labelled a Jerrybag (a derogative term for Jersey girls who were sleeping with the enemy). While she comes across as extremely naïve at the start of the book, Dorothea really grows as a character throughout the book, and continually shows off her surprising inner strength by standing up to people and not hesitating to take Hedy in and hide her from the Germans, despite the obvious risks. I really enjoyed learning about Dorothea’s story, and she became a fantastic part of this book, and it was rather gratifying to learn how the real Dorothea has been deservedly honoured by both the Jewish community and Britain in recent years.
I also really enjoyed learning more about the German occupation of Jersey during the Second World War. This was honestly a topic that I knew very little about, but which proves to be a rather fascinating backdrop to this character driven story. Lecoat, a Jersey native, does a fantastic job showcasing all the details of this invasion, and follows the entirety of the occupation in her story, right up until the end of World War II (the occupiers were some of the last German forces to surrender). The author captures a number of key moments from the occupation in the story while also including several historical figures in her narrative. I also liked how she endeavoured to highlight what day to day life for the inhabitants of Jersey would have been like with the Germans there, and it was interesting to see her interpretations of the islander’s attitudes, how they dealt with the Germans and how desperate the situation got at times throughout the occupation. This proved to be a really interesting and distinctive element to the novel, and I quite enjoyed learning more about this part of World War II that is often overlooked in other historical fiction novels.
Overall, The Viennese Girl is a superb and memorable historical drama novel that is very much worth checking out. Lecoat hit it out of the park with her debut novel, and I was absolutely enthralled by her amazing narrative of courage, survival and love in the most unlikely of circumstances. This was a really impressive novel, and it’s story is going to stick with me for a very long time.