CANONGATE £10.99/£9.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum

Would you sell your soul to feed your child?

This novel asks that nagging question: "What would you have done?" Would you have helped the oppressed, would you have colluded with the enemy, would you have sold your soul to feed your child? Jenna Blum is good at asking questions. She spent four years as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation documenting the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

This novel asks that nagging question: "What would you have done?" Would you have helped the oppressed, would you have colluded with the enemy, would you have sold your soul to feed your child? Jenna Blum is good at asking questions. She spent four years as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation documenting the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

The story tacks effortlessly between 1940s Germany and 1990s America. Eighteen-year-old Anna is pregnant by her Jewish lover. When her father turns him in to the Nazis, Anna seeks refuge with a bossy woman baker. The two women make bread for the officers of the nearby Buchenwald camp. Secretly they bake for the prisoners too. Anna risks her life to feed the inmates, but effectively saves her life by agreeing to the endless, abusive sexual demands of a high-ranking Nazi officer. He keeps her and her new baby daughter alive, but shames and destroys her in the process.

It's a loveless novel, where almost all the sexual encounters are violent. "Anna imagines that, were she able to visit the caves in which people first dwelled, she would find scrawled drawings that have been omitted from museums and history books. There would be scenes of ritual aggression and submission, painted in blood, caked with dried seminal fluid... the rites between men and women; age-old and rotten to the core." Anna loses the power to show real love to anyone, but there's dignity in her decision to keep secret everything she has endured. Her daughter Trudy observes ruefully, but with a grudging respect, that her mother hasn't really spoken to her for 50 years.

I was captivated by the individuals in this novel, but irritated by its broader canvas. Jenna Blum is clearly repelled by intolerance and yet there are endless, oddly prejudiced and formulaic descriptions of Germans. Rainer "has to be the most German Jew in the entire world... you're so obsessively neat." Anna's daughter Trudy is "remote. Formal. Cold. Compulsive about cleaning. All those good German traits."

Jenna Blum, who's American with a German mother and Jewish father, admits to feeling prejudiced about Germanic traits because she lived in England for a while. On her official website she claims that "my time in England had infected me with an Anglophile's view of Germany, a hangover of snide resentment from World War Two that lingers to this day. In my mind, Germans were cold, stiff, goose-stepping figures who were interested only in playing soccer - with the doggedness and lack of humour they brought to every task - and starting wars." For a novel which is so sophisticated and elegantly plotted, this is puerile stuff. Cheap and repetitive definitions of Germans as neat and the English as rabidly anti-German are crass and clumsy.

Those Who Save Us is published at a time when anti-semitic attacks have risen to record levels in this country, when a member of the royal family thinks it appropriate to wear a swastika to a fancy dress party and when the London Mayor likens a Jewish reporter to a Nazi guard. In that context, it's a penetrating novel which touches the heart and questions the conscience.

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup