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This third novel from Belinda Castles is a love story, a family saga, and a slice of twentieth-century European and Australian history.

Hannah and Emil first see one another across a crowded room in 1933.  The venue is a trade union conference in Brussels, where Hannah, the English-born daughter of Russian Jewish émigrés, is working as an interpreter and translator. One morning, as the wife of the Belgian Prime Minister addresses the conference, Hannah notices:

…  a man seated beneath the tall window at the back of the room, not gazing at our visitor … It seemed as though he did not see what was in front of him. His clothes did not match. He wore the navy blue twill trousers of a worker, not quite long enough, exposing socks and a couple of inches of calf on the crossed leg, and the shirt and grey plaid jacket of a union functionary.

Emil is recently arrived from Germany. An anti-Nazi activist, he has had to flee for his life, leaving his wife and young son behind. He does not know exactly what happened to his father, but is haunted by the memory of his father’s union office being taken over by the Nazis, a huge swastika thrust through its window onto the street. He has not seen his father since.

However, Hannah and Emil’s meeting does not occur until around the novel’s halfway mark, after we have come to know and care about each of them separately.

The novel opens in contemporary Sydney, with a young woman, Flora, receiving a suitcase of old photographs and papers. The suitcase belonged to her grandmother, Hannah. Flora’s memories of her grandmother are of an old woman succumbing to dementia.  But among the papers are clues to the story of Hannah’s life and that of Flora’s grandfather, Emil.

The story then moves back to 1902 and the German town of Duisberg, where Emil grew up.  The novel unfolds in chapters that alternate Emil’s and Hannah’s points of view. In keeping with the conceit that the novel has been constructed by Flora from the contents of her grandmother’s suitcase, Hannah’s sections are narrated in the first person, Emil’s in the third.  This gives an added intimacy to Hannah’s chapters, and allows her older self to reflect on the younger, as when she speculates about a childhood friend:

Where is Boris? Sometimes I fancy I see him in the face of some Homburg-hatted relic tottering out onto the heath … but it is never him. One doesn’t expect people to survive all the things we did.

Hannah’s story opens in London in 1915, with the eight-year-old girl carrying a bundle of bedding down to the nearest Tube station when the air-raid sirens sound. She is already demonstrating her talent for languages, writing letters in Yiddish for an illiterate neighbour.

Both Hannah and Emil are precocious, confident children. When one day Emil attempts to swim in the river at Duisberg and ends up having to be rescued, he is unrepentant, telling his best friend:

 ‘Did you see me swim, Thomas? I swam. I swam so fast. You were running, I saw you, but you could not run as fast as I could swim.’

While Hannah, with great self-possession, responds to a question in class with: ‘I do know, but somebody else can answer. It’s all right.’

Later, with her father’s encouragement, Hannah makes stump speeches at Hyde Park Corner and attends labour meetings. She grows into a young woman gutsy enough to defy her parents and make her own way in the world, cultivating a wide range of contacts in the process. She travels alone to Berlin to research working conditions and gets caught up in a clash between unionists and brownshirts (could she and Emil, unknowingly, have attended the same meeting?).

While Hannah is taking refuge in London tube stations, Emil has been conscripted into the German army, and fights with the Turks against the Allied forces at Gallipoli.

There was a rumour that Germans were a prize to the Australians on the beach.  They did not really know for certain that they were there, it seemed, or how many, but if they found one they had no interest in taking him back down to the pen. It was said the Australians had been promised extra leave for whoever brought back a German head on a stick.

The war leaves its mark on Emil, as it does on the entire German nation. The portrait of post-war Germany, the confusion and unrest in the lives of ordinary working people, the brutal suppression of demonstrations calling for reforms, is a compelling one, and in this respect, Hannah and Emil provides a counterpoint to Anna Funder’s bourgeois anti-Nazis in All That I Am.  Not for Emil the glamour of plotting in a curtained booth at a fashionable cabaret, or exile in a comfortable flat in Bloomsbury.  For him resistance is midnight meetings in empty factories, violent political rallies, and being left for dead in the street.

This is a novel with a big canvas, generous in its sweep through the twentieth century. Much of the material is familiar, but through Hannah’s and Emil’s eyes it retains its freshness. Belinda Castles is particularly good at capturing her characters’ emotional states. Here is the young Hannah setting off on her adventure to Berlin:

As my train pulled out of Liverpool Street … a plump girl opposite me eyeing me with clear envy, my notebook was already open on my lap.  I caught sight of my pulse, visible and strong. I watched the miniature heart beat at my wrist, my secret hope: that the nib of my pen would break open the skin of the world.

And here is Emil, leaving England in very different circumstances aboard the Dunera:

Emil stared into the thick black air above the men’s heads, these prisoners pitched into their darkest moments by the lurching of the ship. The hold was peopled with all of their nightares: violent men, shattering glass, speechless farewells on railway platforms. He slipped eventually into a sleep more like illness than rest, a place of inescapable lucidity and repetition, of loss that filled his body like a sweet, poisonous gas.

Hannah and Emil’s relationship survives despite prejudice and circumstances that conspire to keep them apart – particularly after Emil is interned in England and then deported to Australia as one of the ‘Dunera boys’ for the duration of the war.

Inspired by the real-life stories of her grandparents, Belinda Castles has created both an engaging novel and an affectionate double portrait of two idealists forced to face the hard choices of history.

Belinda Castles Hannah and Emil, Allen & Unwin, 2012, PB, 416pp, $29.99.

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