Hachette Australia 2021
Offset by arrangement with Graydon House Books, an imprint of Harlequin, a division of Harper Collins Publishers USA
The Warsaw Orphan joins a growing collection of books about aspects of the Holocaust, this one the Nazi occupation of Poland. It is a story focused on families caught up in the cruelties and privations of the period – the Jews who were placed in the confines of the ghetto in Warsaw and the Catholic Poles living in relative comfort but still under great duress and hardship in the part of the city outside those walls.
The author has a family connection with Poland and not only spent time in Poland listening to stories first-hand but also then continued her research in COVID times more remotely. In particular, the true story of Irena Stendler provided inspiration for both some of her characters and for the writing itself – an important story that must not be forgotten. What she has produced in this novel is a heart-rending tale of courage, secrecy, cruelty, struggle and love.
Elzbieta, herself an orphan living in secrecy and confinement with her aunt and uncle under the assumed name of Emilia (thanks to Uncle Piotr’s capacity to source almost everything including false papers via the black market) meets her neighbour Sara. Another chance encounter then leads her to begin secretly working with Sara in the dangerous work of taking typhus vaccine into the ghetto and in teaching Jewish children their Catholic prayers to facilitate their escape into orphanages or the homes of Polish families.
During this process she meets Roman, a young Jew who joins the Resistance to try to save his family from the fate that seems inevitable, deportation and death. Their stories entwine and take us through the horrors of occupation years, the further horrors of early Russian occupation and to the immediate post war period, still one of occupation for so long. Suffice it to say that we see the worst of human behaviour and the best.
As we would expect, the strength of the female characters is an important aspect of this book. So too is the capacity of the human being to persist in the face of extreme hardship and inhuman treatment. Many moral questions are raised in this story, but none is didactically defined – they so clearly demand our attention that we cannot but address them as we read.
This is skillful story telling from an author passionate about the sharing of these histories. We are forced to gaze on the unspeakable, to question our own morality and then to gaze further to the hopeful light of possibility and forgiveness. Our emotions are ever engaged with this book and our minds challenged to understand the inexplicable.
But I feel obliged to make a plea to marketing departments, editors and perhaps publishing houses.
I am increasingly irritated by the Americanisation of our language in novels clearly designed to appeal to that market.
In historical fiction especially, but also more broadly, I am finding what I feel is language creep, which in turn is creating linguistic anachronisms – for instance the use of euphemisms designed to shield the sensitivities of this (unquestionably vast) reading audience – it’s twee and grating to this English-speaking reader with a British and European heritage.
An example in this book is the term ‘going to the bathroom’ to avoid reference to bodily functions. Another is the use of the possessive pronoun ‘their’ for politically correct reasons when its or his or her would be more appropriate. Historical fiction requires a degree of linguistic authenticity to its era, without resorting to archaic language which might cloud meaning.
I am a great supporter and admirer of all parts of the book and publishing industry including the transition of works into film, and honestly think we can credit audiences with enough intelligence to adapt to other cultural norms in their reading and viewing. This is a small gripe, and not aimed at writers, who, I suspect, are not the perpetrators of these sins against English.
Thank you to Hachette for the review copy and Kelly for such an interesting conversation about things of great moment.