“She thought she’d escaped. But they were still searching…”
- Book: The Woman Outside The Walls
- Location: Hamburg, London
- Author: Suzanne Goldring
Either before or after reading this story, you should definitely check out the reference at the end of the book entitled: –
“BACKGROUND TO THE WOMAN OUTSIDE THE WALLS”
Author, Suzanne Goldring, explains beautifully which sections of the storyline are partially factual, based on some interesting and intriguing research, which clearly had a tremendous impact on her. Even down to the relevance, darkness and cruel undercurrents of the chapter headings, which are taken from the collection of stories by The Brothers Grimm.
Anna’s childhood living in 1929 Hamburg, Germany, is rudely interrupted in a way she is as yet unable to full comprehend, when her best friend Etta is suddenly and without explanation, taken away from the school both girls attend. Anna is forbidden to play with her, or visit her home anymore, and eventually the family pack up and leave the country, never to be seen or heard from again. It is only as she grows up, that Anna discovers that Etta came from a Jewish family and was thus no longer deemed to be of good enough standing to be allowed to mix or live alongside any good German citizen.
Moving into her late teenage years, Anna takes a secretarial course to enhance her chances of finding employment and also begins to discover her own sexuality and that of the opposite sex. Her eye falls on Gunther, who is slightly older than she and is already a member of the Hitler Youth Movement. Naive as Anna is, she simply refuses to see what is staring her firmly in the face, believes Gunther’s line that she is the only one for him and allows him to have his way with her on the eve of his going off to the front line. Gunther is subsequently killed, and Anna lies to her parents about finding a position which necessitates her living away from home, in order to hide the truth about the predicament she is now in. Baby Peter is removed from his mother at birth and Anna never sees him again, not ever knowing whether he lived or died.
Anna secures a secretarial position in a ‘prison camp’, again so naive as to not know exactly what situation she was allowing herself to become involved in. By the time she comes to her senses and even with her brave offers of help to some of the prisoners, it is too late, and her fate is sealed until some two years later, when word gets out that ‘liberating’ Russian troops are on their way and the camp needs to be cleared and any evidence of wrongdoing destroyed. Escaping the camp herself and returning home to Hamburg, Anna realises the almost total devastation which has been wreaked upon the city and the futility of searching for her parents in the mayhem left behind. A new identity as Etta and a hand to mouth life, lived underground as part of a small group, means that everyone must play their part in providing food and clothing for the community, which for the young women means making the most of their assets, to attract the eye of the British liberating forces, even for Gertrude who has only just given birth to a new son, also called Peter. Gertrude has past demons of her own though, which she is never able to reconcile, thus making her final decision fatal and irrevocable, leaving Peter an orphan.
Reg is not your usual serviceman, being slightly older than many of his comrades. He makes no demands on Anna, other than that of friendship and an enduring love which he realises is quite one-sided, eventually asking her to marry him and return to England as his wife. Anna explains Gertrude’s situation to Reg and begs that she might bring baby Peter with her to England, rather than have him starve in the cold basement. After decades of marriage to Reg, with Peter never knowing the circumstances of his birth and he and his sister long since having moved to the other side of the world to escape their strange family home life, Anna, now with another change of identity to Margie, has never told Reg the true circumstances in which he found her all those years ago. Whilst Reg has long suspected that Anna’s story was tailored to meet the situation in which she found herself, his reaction if he had ever known the full extent of his wife’s past deeds and the true extent to which she had deceived him, can only be guessed at. Now alone and in her nineties, Anna sits with her growing collection of war-crimes cuttings, just waiting for the doorbell to ring…
Neighbours to Margie, are Lauren and her two children Amy and Freddie, although Amy is now away at university and Freddie is fast approaching his teenage years. Lauren’s husband Colin, was a serving police officer when he died in his early fifties, leaving her to raise the children alone. Freddie is definitely a credit to his mother and they both take seriously the need to keep a close eye on their nonagenarian neighbour, although this they have always done without intrusion into her private life, so are completely unaware of her past and the circumstances surrounding her long marriage to her husband, or her country of origin. It isn’t until Freddie, realising that German is Anna’s (Margie) native tongue, decides that he would like to interview her about the war years, as this is his current term project at school. Anna completely loses the plot when Lauren and Freddie approach her with their request and at first refuses point blank to discuss it with them. She then spends some contemplative time alone with her thoughts and memories, guilt and shame, before deciding that the couple need to know the truth about her past, trusting Freddie to do what he will with the information, as she can carry the burden no longer and is prepared to meet her maker under whatever circumstances dictate.
Alongside the rather gruesome Grimms Brothers dividers I mentioned earlier, each chapter is also clearly date stamped, making the back and forth between the German and English locations and their many time frames which cover the period 1929 – 2017, digestible and easy to follow. Compelling, wonderfully descriptive and profoundly touching words conjured up a truly visual and evocative, if not always comfortable, sense of time and place throughout. If you are only able to experience this immersive storyline as an ‘armchair traveller’, you most definitely won’t be disappointed.
The writing is evocative, poignant, highly textured, fluent and well-paced, with several unexpectedly intense and emotional moments, which are perceptive, intuitive, often raw and passionate, yet profoundly touching, highlighting both the fragility and resilience of the human mind and physical body, whilst uncovering the long-term and unseen effects the trauma of grief and loss can have, which can last a lifetime. Lauren’s story also explores the lengths a parent will go to and the sacrifices they will make, to keep their children safe from harm and the gut-wrenching feelings of failure when they are unable to protect them as they feel they should.
The characters are well developed, complex and authentic to their place in time, although that did not always make them easy to relate to, or invest in. Circumstances meant that some were still searching for a sense of belonging and closure, on what had been tumultuous periods in their lives, which made them compelling and emotionally vulnerable, frail yet with an amazing inner strength and the tenacity to want to rebuild their shattered hopes and dreams and, in some cases, to make amends for the past.
For the younger characters, particularly Freddie, the future is all important, with the past being an era he had never sought to waste his time and energy challenging. When personal circumstances mean that he is forced to confront a truth well beyond that documented in his history study books, his open-minded, mature attitude surprises both Lauren, his mother, and Anna herself. Maybe his rather too compassionate and ‘liberal’ perspectives upon hearing the truth about Anna’s past will not make him popular, however his decisions are well thought through, much as his own father’s would have been and both he and Anna know the full depths of the risk they are taking.
Trying to look back dispassionately when I had finished my journey with this book, I could only come to the conclusion that there really were no winners in this generational saga. Even though the story had traversed many decades and Anna had even crossed the ocean in a bid for freedom, a new beginning and peace of mind, she never seemed able to escape the thoughts that dominated her waking hours, nor the visions of the terrible things she had witnessed, which were locked in her head waiting for when she closed her eyes at night. So many damaged lives and too many wasted opportunities to ever afford peace of mind. There was to be no forgiveness or lifting of the burden of guilt with Anna locking the experiences away in a place where only she could find them, no one had seen past the facade she had created, to offer the help and solace she needed to set herself free. However, after finally listening to Anna recount her experiences and stories out loud, there seemed to be a palpable sense of relief, the gentle sigh and release of a long-held breath and the sudden lifting of a burden of guilt, with the knowledge that her life would and indeed, should, be judged by others. For Lauren, the realisation that her elderly neighbour has a past she is finding it difficult to even contemplate accepting and knowing what her own conscience is telling her she should do, has placed her in an almost impossible situation, given the completely opposite reaction of her son Freddie, who is open-minded enough to play devil’s advocate and get both sides of the story out into the public domain.
Given the vast plethora of WWII books I have read over a relatively short period of time, I am always amazed at the many diverse storyline’s authors are able to come up with. The Woman Outside The Walls definitely has that defining difference which made it unique, interesting and intriguing.
What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who can fire my imagination, stimulate my senses and stir my emotions. Whilst for me personally, this book had the power to evoke so many feelings, I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about the potential outcome of this storyline as the last reader, nor probably the next, so this really is an experience you need to have for yourself and see where your thoughts lead you!