“A woman is like a tea bag. It’s only when she’s in hot water that you realize how strong she is.”
Opening with a punch, this book starts with Sarah crouched in the footwell of a car and her mother slumped over the wheel, a bullet in the back of her head. Orphaned at 15, Sarah’s priority is to escape from the border guards that have just killed her mother and get herself to safety.
Set at the eve of WW2, Sarah and her mother attempt to flee into Switzerland. Already pushed out of their home in Berlin, Jews living in Austria are no longer safe from the wave of National Socialism that has taken over Germany in the preceding years and the spread of its power into neighbouring countries. Sarah has been schooled by her mother in theatrical arts which, coupled with her blond hair, allows her to masquerade as an Aryan and helps her to survive.
Sneaking her way onto a boat bound for Switzerland, she rescues a mysterious gentleman, Herr Haller. Putting at risk her own safety, saves him from trouble with the border guards at the dock through her quick wit and bravery and together they dodge their way back into Germany. A German scientist is threatening to develop a nuclear bomb, which would have catastrophic consequences. Herr Haller convinces Sarah to infiltrate a Nazi school, which is grooming the female monsters of the future, so that she can befriend the scientists daughter and gain access to this lab. Sarah becomes the Orphan Monster Spy.
This is a fast paced book, full of action, but it skilfully roots itself in the horror of what Sarah and her mother have endured during the rise of National Socialism. Sarah, though seemingly unshakeable on the outside, has packed all of her terrible experiences into a box down in her soul, first as a means to keep from being overwhelmed by the weight of it all, and later as a source of power to overcome what gets put in her path. Using Sarah’s gymnastic skills as a metaphor, “commit to the move” is a refrain which comes back again and again, giving the message that you have to do something wholeheartedly and with all your effort to succeed. Timidity will lead to failure. Eloquently written, and with real heart, there was nothing timid about this debut novel. I’m looking forward to sequel.