Big Sky Publishing, Australia, 2020
Joining a growing collection of contemporary, fictionalised histories of the twentieth century Nazi period in Europe, some reviewed on this website, Steve Matthews’ novel tells the story of Ania, a beautiful young Polish woman.
The novel begins in 2000 in the US with a dramatic event to which we return at the book’s end – a denouement we are well and truly prepared for as we follow the characters through five years of war.
Anna (Ania), however, begins her wartime story when the Nazis move into Poland and kill her parents. She and her sister Danuta are separated – Danuta ends up working with the Polish resistance, Anna is taken to work in a camp specifically designed as a brothel to service camp officials.
The story, of necessity, takes us into the darkness of the Nazi death camps and the behaviour of those who managed and worked in them. As an exploration of this period, it covers some ground we are familiar with, but will never find easy to grapple with. The matter of the brothels is less known and no easier to contemplate in the context of the history of Europe.
The author invites us to consider what we would do to survive. And at one level this is a story of survival as we follow the main characters through their struggles and through the increasingly desperate times as the war is clearly drawing to a close with a German defeat.
The themes of crime and retribution, of justice and revenge underpin the work. We experience enough of the misery of this tale to whole-heartedly sympathise with Ania and thus her decision at the end of the book is also one we cannot glibly judge. The author skilfully demands of us more than a reading experience, but rather a deep examination of our own morality.
That heroines rather than the accustomed male war hero figures are the main characters is significant. This is very much a story of women, their strength, their fragility, their capacity for friendship and for resourcefulness, their courage, their pragmatic decisiveness and their compassion.
All histories of this period will force us to ask a great many largely unanswerable questions. They, like this one, will also demand that we assess the current era and social-political movements worldwide, and our potential role in determining what sort of world we create and leave for our children.
Thank you to Big Sky Publishing and DMCPR for the review copy and facilitation of my interview with Steve.