Rating: 3 Stars ★★★☆☆
The first thing Clara noticed was that it was her own shoes the girl was wearing.
Berlin, 1933. Warning bells ring across Europe as Hitler comes to power. Clara Vine, an attractive young Anglo-German actress, arrives in Berlin to find work at the famous Ufa studios. Through a chance meeting, she is unwillingly drawn into a circle of Nazi wives, among them Magda Goebbels, Anneliese von Ribbentrop and Goering’s girlfriend Emmy Sonnemann.
As part of his plan to create a new pure German race, Hitler wants to make sweeping changes to the lives of women, starting with the formation of a Reich Fashion Bureau, instructing women on what to wear and how to behave. Clara is invited to model the dowdy, unflattering clothes. Then she meets Leo Quinn who is working for British intelligence and who sees in Clara the perfect recruit to spy on her new elite friends, 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, desperately caught between her duty towards — and growing affection for — Leo, and the impossibly dangerous task Magda has forced upon her.
As a mystery, this book doesn’t quite hold up. It starts out with the apparent suicide of Clara’s friend – except she’s sure it was murder. Then, it goes back in time to when Clara first came to Berlin and narrates how she came to meet her friend and find her on the street that night.
“Helga was an actress, like me. She made the mistake of joking about Hitler and they pushed her out of a fifth-floor window. You might read about her in the next few days and it will probably say she committed suicide because she was depressed, or a fanatist, but that wasn’t the case. Her only crime was laughing at them. I would do anything I could to avenge her.
The mystery wasn’t really the focus for most of the book. It’s more of a portrayal of life in 1930s Berlin. The glorious days of the roaring twenties are waning, and everywhere, the power of the Nazis is felt more and more.
It’s what the book does exceedingly well: portray the oppressive atmosphere in Germany during that time. With the knowledge of even worse things that would follow, these parts were heartbreaking.
In normal times, when people witnessed a crime, they called the police. Now people knew better. They would avoid the huddled body in the gutter. They slept through shrieks in the night, and the sounds of car engines and doors slamming that meant their neighbour was being arrested. It was as though the Nazis were conducting an experiment on the entire populace, hoping with small and regular acts of violence to inoculate them, and as a result, they were all becoming immune.
So the book doesn’t really need the mystery at its center, it holds up quite well on the story of Clara’s life alone, as it has the added danger of her connection with the Nazi grandees, particularly Magda Goebbels.
It’s a bit weak on relationships though. I didn’t quite get the friendship between Clara and Helga. As far as I could tell, they had nothing in common and their friendship wasn’t really advanced enough for her to get herself in danger to avenge her. The relationship between Clara and Magda was also weird, but that was probably on purpose, with her pulling Clara in and then pushing her away.
And the relationship between Leo and Clara? I didn’t get that at all. He’s kind of a huge ass to her at first, yet she falls in love with him pretty much from the start.
Still, I’m definitely going to check out the next book in the series.
A lively portrait of a city under the oppressive Nazi regime.