I’m busy researching my upcoming novel about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose so am on a bit of a Nazi Germany kick at the moment. It’s not a period that I’ve ever really read much about to be honest, mainly because I am pathetically soft hearted and find reading about the terrible things that happened during that period just too unbearable so I’m ashamed to admit that I will usually do my best to avoid it otherwise I’d be in tears all the time about it all. However, I’ve had to steel myself to it as part of my research and am now rather engrossed in finding out more about this fascinating period in history – although, it helps of course when the protagonists in your book are opposed to the Nazi regime rather than enthusiastically participating.
I was very pleased therefore when Simon and Schuster offered me review copies of Black Roses, Jane Thynne’s novel set in 1933 Berlin and its newly published follow up, The Winter Garden, which takes the story into the heart of the Third Reich in 1937 and even closer to the inevitable outbreak of war.
‘Berlin, 1933. Warning bells ring across Europe as Hitler comes to power Clara Vine is young and ambitious, and determined to succeed as an actress. A chance meeting at a party in London leads her to Berlin, to the famous Ufa studios and, unwittingly, into an uneasy circle of Nazi wives, among them Magda Goebbels. Then Clara meets Leo Quinn who is undercover, working for British intelligence. Leo sees in Clara the perfect recruit to spy on her new acquaintances, using her acting skills to win their confidence. But when Magda Goebbels reveals to Clara a dramatic secret and entrusts her with an extraordinary mission, Clara feels threatened, compromised and desperately caught between duty and love.‘
Jane Thynne has created a brilliant heroine in the person of Clara Vine, a plucky and resourceful young half German actress from the outer echelons of well heeled English society who on little more than a whim transplants herself in Berlin in order to pursue a film career at the celebrated UFA studios and attempt to forge a connection with her dead mother and it is she who is our eyes as Thynne explores the often sinister world of pre-war Berlin. Just as I am finding it easier to write about Third Reich Germany from the perspective of someone who openly opposed the regime, so too is it more interesting and less overwhelming to read about it from the point of view of an outsider, who is just as appalled and fascinated as we are by the changes taking place as the country moves inexorably towards war.
Although Clara’s experiences at the super glamorous UFA studios make for an interesting read and I really enjoyed the espionage angle of both books, it is her brushes with the upper echelons of the Nazi elite that I found most intriguing, especially as Thynne has clearly done a mammoth amount of research, with the result that her descriptions of people and places, even in passing are richly detailed and never anything less than fascinating. It’s not often that I end a novel with the feeling that I’ve learnt loads while reading it but that really happened with both Black Roses and The Winter Garden, which were packed full of the most amazing nuggets of information about the Goebbels and Goering families and their associates, including Diana and Unity Mitford, who pop up in The Winter Garden in all their most cocktail swilling, bias dress wearing Mitfordian glory. Even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor pop up in the second book, where they are described as like frightened fauns clinging together in the sinister forest of Nazi dignitaries.
Yes, it’s all unspeakably glamorous but even without the benefit of our hindsight, Clara knows that it’s all going to end badly for everyone concerned and so she allows herself to cast a wry eye over, for example, the expensively glittering French couture contents of Magda Goebbel’s wardrobe while well aware that ordinary German women are prohibited from wearing such clothes and, indeed, can’t afford them. The appalling hypocrisy of the Nazi elite is shown up for what it is and we are invited to take a sort of bleak enjoyment in that. And of course all this unbridled sumptuousness is a stark contrast to the lives of ordinary Germans and in particular the unhappy situation of the Jewish population, which is beginning to feel the effects of the more unpleasant aspects of the Third Reich.
‘Berlin, 1937. The city radiates glamour and ambition. But danger lurks in every shadow… Anna Hansen, a bride-to-be, is a pupil at one of Hitler’s notorious Nazi Bride Schools, where young women are schooled on the art of being an SS officer’s wife. Then, one night, she is brutally murdered and left in the gardens of the school. Her death will be hushed up and her life forgotten. Clara Vine is an actress at Berlin’s famous UFA studios by day and an undercover British Intelligence agent by night. She knew Anna and is disturbed by news of her death. She cannot understand why someone would want to cover it up, but she soon discovers that Anna’s murder is linked to a far more ominous secret. With the newly abdicated Edward VIII and his wife Wallis set to arrive in Berlin, and the Mitford sisters dazzling on the social scene, Clara must work in the darkness to find the truth and send it back to London. It is a dangerous path she treads, and it will take everything she has to survive…‘
Nazi Bride Schools. I know, right? I LOVED reading about this aspect of the Third Reich and it even sparked off a bit of a research frenzy as I found myself wanting to know more about this total madness. In fact, several bits in these books had me hastening to fire up Wikipedia in order to read more about the people, places and events described within them – such as Goering’s sumptuous Carinall hunting lodge, the various Nazi wives (a bit like The Real Housewives only with a teensy bit more bling, slightly less back biting and the odd lion cub running free in their houses) and the controversial visit of the Windsors to Berlin in 1937. But still, let’s just say that again: Nazi. Bride. Schools. Wow.
In summary, the Clara Vine books by Jane Thynne are exciting, pacy, enthralling espionage tales with a hefty dash of 1930s glamour, murder and bittersweet romance (I had a possibly inexplicable love for Arno Strauss in The Winter Garden) all set in a brittle, darkening, paranoid world of fascism and oncoming war. I can’t wait for the promised third novel in the series (and am now even more excited about my upcoming trip to Berlin) but in the meantime can wholeheartedly recommend these books!
Ps. If you want to know more, here’s a video of Jane Thynne talking a bit more about her books.
Blood Sisters, my novel of posh doom and iniquity during the French Revolution is just a fiver (offer is UK only sorry!) right now! Just use the clicky box on my blog sidebar to order your copy!