Title: Hannah and Emil
Author: Belinda Castles
Idealistic Hannah Jacob hopes the nib of her pen "will break open the skin of the world". Emil Becker learns there is no room for grand gestures in the German and Turkish trenches of Gallipoli and that "the only way to act is to run or to die".
It is the love between these two strong-minded characters which drives the plot of Belinda Castles' novel, Hannah and Emil. Based on the tumultuous lives of the author's grandparents, Castles insists the work "should be considered fiction" even though the "main episodes" did occur.
The prologue reinforces this fusion of imagination and fact. Opening in Sydney in 2005, a woman named Flora inherits her grandparents' battered suitcase full of "old, worn" objects. As Flora inspects the items, she begins to imagine a "life in them".
Hannah is a feisty Russian Jew living in the West End of London in the 1930s. Fluent in several languages, her socialist-leaning father encourages his children to become writers.
After witnessing the rousing speeches at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, Hannah immerses herself in various human rights causes, soaking up the energy of clandestine politics and dashing off reports on her typewriter. But when her mother puts a curfew on her 'unladylike' late night activities, Hannah packs a bag and sets off for Europe where she first encounters the enigmatic Emil.
German-born Emil was brought up by his union activist father to "act where he sees injustice". Having survived Gallipoli, Emil returns home to the poverty and bitterness of a defeated nation.
As his father continues to agitate for workers' rights, scarcity and blame usher in the rise of hardline politics. Jewish and Polish people are targeted. So are the unionists.
The pressure to conform to the Nazi agenda extends to Emil's wife and son. Old friends become traitors. Spies are everywhere. When violence erupts at Emil's father's factory, he receives a tip off from a sympathetic friend and manages to escape.
Despite covering contentious political positions set against the wide sweep of history, Castles' writing is never preachy. Acts of kindness arise unexpectedly. Surprising friendships are forged in hardship. Both are written without sentimentality.
Castles' first novel The Falling Woman won the prestigious Vogel award in 2006. This novel criss-crosses the globe as it tells the lesser known stories of the underdog. Increasingly absorbing as the action reaches Australian shores, it is well worth the journey.
Books reviewed are available from The Book Warehouse in Lismore.
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