Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2022)
Length: 450 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
One of Australia’s best authors, Kelly Rimmer, returns with another beautiful and exceedingly moving historical drama, The German Wife, which takes readers to the edge of despair and back again with its deep and bleak plot.
Kelly Rimmer is an outstanding author who specialises in writing great historical drama novels and who was one of the better authors I was lucky enough to experience for the first time last year when I received a copy of her 2021 novel, The Warsaw Orphan. The Warsaw Orphan was a brilliant and extremely powerful read that showcased multiple sides of the horror and terror experienced in the Warsaw Ghetto while also telling the unique tale of two young people who tried to smuggle young children outside the ghetto walls. Brutal, extreme and yet filled with hope, this was a deeply moving novel that ended up an incredible read. Due to how great this novel was, I was extremely keen to check out more stuff from Rimmer and I was extremely happy when I found myself receive a copy of her latest novel, The German Wife.
Berlin, 1930. Sofie Rhodes can only watch in horror as the Nazi Party starts to take control of her country, slowly morphing it into a nation of hatred and fear. Already facing financial ruin after World War I and the Depression, Sofie and her husband, Jürgen, find themselves receiving special attention from the Nazis due to Jürgen’s scientific speciality. When Jürgen is forcibly recruited to Hitler’s top-secret rocket project, Sofie finds herself constantly under surveillance and forced to conform to Nazi ideology, including turning her back on her Jewish best friend, Mayim.
Many years later, in 1950, Sofie and her remaining children emigrate to a small town in Alabama to be with Jürgen, whose past with the Nazis has been pardoned and erased in exchange for his work on the US space program. Determined to make a new life for herself and her family in America, Sofie soon discovers old and new prejudices both from the hostile Americans and the other German families living in town with them.
Isolated and hated, Sofie finds her path crossing with American housewife Lizzie Miller, who has her own history of loss and despair during the Depression. Shocked that her husband and government are so eager to be working with former Nazis, Lizzie keeps finding herself in conflict with Sofie, while rumour and gossip about the Rhodes family swirl around town. When these rumours lead to violence and anger, the new community will be torn apart as the true history of the Rhodes family comes tumbling out. Can this troubled family finally find redemption in a new land, or will the horrors of the war and Nazi ambition follow them wherever they go?
Damn, this was an intense and captivating read. Rimmer went all out with the emotional feels here in The German Wife, producing a powerful, moving and tragic tale of love, loss and moral compromise. Perfectly portraying some fascinating elements of the darkest part of our history, this was an exceptional read that gets a full five-star rating from me.
I cannot emphasise enough how good the story in The German Wife was as Rimmer produced a deeply dramatic historical tale with an impressive scope that comes together beautifully. Split between its two point-of-view characters, Sofie Rhodes and Lizzie Miller, The German Wife presents a complex, time-hopping narrative as the reader is shown the protagonists conflict as well as the events that led them to meet for the first time. Half the book takes place in 1950 Alabama, where both ladies live with their respective families, while the other half of the book goes back and sequentially examines their pasts from 1930 onward. This provides the reader with an intriguing view of both the Depression in America and the rise of Nazism in Germany, while also providing some intriguing context for the characters’ actions in 1950. This mixture of perspectives and time periods works extremely well, and Rimmer melds them together perfectly to tell a taught and emotionally rich tale. The past injustices and emotional traumas that occur in these earlier timelines contrast perfectly with the issues they are having in the 1950s, and it was great to see all the events that built towards the attitudes and emotions they had when they were older. It also provides three unique storylines (1930s America, 1930s Germany and 1950s America), all three of which contained some intriguing side characters and captivating historical elements, which was extremely compelling.
Out of the three main plot lines that The German Wife contained, I personally thought the examinations of Sofie and Jürgen’s time in Nazi Germany were the best. These scenes are particularly compelling, as they show the characters thrust into the middle of events they can’t escape from as they are forced to work with the Nazis and accept the changes to the country. Watching these inherently good characters make compromise after compromise and suffer constant emotional trauma and betrayal is pretty heartbreaking, but it produces some brilliant and memorable scenes that will really hit you in the feels. This context, and Lizzie’s excellent backstory, are worked into the 1950s storyline extremely well, and the various time periods compliment each other well, especially as Rimmer works to provide several cryptic hints about past events in the future chapters, which really adds to the reader’s apprehension. All these storylines, including the one in the 1950s, which examines the many issues the Rhodeses face when they emigrate to America, as well as the conflict that occurs between Sofie and Lizzie, are brilliantly written and loaded with emotional moments that hit you hard. There is also some great character work contained with The German Wife as Rimmer really builds up her central two characters, as well as the excellent supporting cast, providing them with captivating and compelling personal histories, which are fully explored in the flashback scenes. This great story, combined with the fantastic characters and the historical settings, is a narrative that will sit with me for a long time.
Rimmer also provides a detailed and impressive look at various historical elements that occurred between 1930 and 1950 in both America and Germany. The author clearly did a ton of research on multiple subjects before writing this book, and it really shows as the story progresses. These historical elements include a pretty comprehensive look at life in America during the Depression, as one point of view characters journeys around several parts of the deeply impacted South, and there are some great scenes, especially some of the early ones that take place in an extremely dusty climate. There is also a great examination of both the Nazi and American rocket programs that occurred during this period, as Jürgen serves as a technician for both governments. I found the examination of the V2 program to be extremely interesting, and Rimmer goes into exquisite detail here, with Jürgen serving as an intriguing stand-in for historical figure Wernher von Braun. This allows for the reader to see a slightly abridged version of the program (its shown through the eyes of his wife who is getting most of her knowledge second hand), but there is still a lot of great detail here, including the eventual change in objectives, the continued failure, the desire for it to succeed by the Nazis, as well as all the terrible things that resulted from it. However, a good part of the book is also reserved to examine one of the most fascinating parts of the Nazi rocket program, the subsequent responsive Operation Paperclip by the Americans, which pardoned many of the German scientists and moved them to America with altered pasts to help their fledgling space program. I loved seeing this movement to another country told through the eyes of both a wife of one of the scientists and an American citizen who finds out about the program, and it produces some brilliant and clever scenes that help showcases this extremely well.
I also really need to highlight Rimmer’s examination of the Nazi takeover of Germany that occurred in all Sofie’s flashback chapters. Rimmer already has a lot of experience showcasing the evils of the Nazis from her previous books, but The German Wife probably contains one of her best depictions of this as it showed how a normal German citizen’s life was turned upside down in just a few years. The author really hammers home just how creatively evil the Nazis were in corrupting their own country, as you see the full gradual process take effect. The author meticulously recounts every change that the Nazis implemented, all of which served to ensure the loyalty of its people and to terrorise those they hated. You get to see the full range of controls that the Nazis enacted, including threatening job security, disappearances by the secret police, control of the media, turning friends and neighbours against each other, providing a common enemy, and even brainwashing children in the schools. All of this is pretty damn intense, especially as there are some notable modern parallels, and it is darkly fascinating to see everything that the Nazis did. However, the true brilliance of the way that Rimmer explores it in The German Wife, is to show how people like the Rhodes reacted to it. Watching them become horrified by the changes to their country and the people around them is pretty intense, but the real drama occurs when they are forced to make compromises. Sofia and Jürgen are constantly faced with the choice of helping the Nazis (either directly or indirectly by not opposing them), or to face various consequences for themselves and their families. Their decisions, despite always appearing to be their best option, eventually drag them deeper into complicity with the Nazis, so much so that Jürgen becomes a reluctant member of the SS and bears some responsibility for utilising slave labour in terrible conditions. This is such a horrifying thing to witness, especially as the reader is left to wonder what they would have done in a similar situation. They way the scenarios are written, with the Rhodes punished every time they move away from the party goals really ensure that you have no idea how you would have acted it makes some of the reactions from the 1950s American characters sound extremely naïve as a result. This was such a powerful and impressive inclusion from Rimmer and I felt that this brilliant portrayal of the Nazi’s techniques for control of their own citizens added so much to book’s outstanding plot.
With The German Wife, Kelly Rimmer continues to shine as one of Australia’s most exceptional authors of historical dramas. This outstanding contains an extremely moving and heartbreaking tale from some of the darkest moments in 19th century history. With powerful views of life during both the Depression and the rise of the Nazis, readers will quickly become engrossed with this impressive tale and well-written central characters. The German Wife was insanely good and will leave readers stunned with how the story comes together. A deeply memorable and intense read, I cannot recommend this book enough.