Written by Armando Lucas Correa, The German Girl follows the story of Hannah Rosenthal and her family living in Berlin during 1938-39 before embarking on the ill-fated Hamburg-Amerika Linie ship St. Louis with the aim of travelling to Cuba. Throughout the chapter, the author weaves through the story of Anna, Hannah’s great-niece, who is aged 11, trying to understand where she comes from. Both Hannah and Anna only meet when Anna receives a box of photograph negatives from Hannah living in Cuba, prompting Anna and her mother to travel to Cuba.
I read this book in a day quite easily, though I must admit I was quite determined to finish it as quickly as possible. The start isn’t as smooth as I would like with the book bouncing to and from decades with every decade for a large part of the book. Nor is the character development the best. After reading this, I was left wondering more about Anna; we don’t get to learn much about her, other than her father died when her mother was 3 months pregnant with her, Anna is close to her mother – often bringing her coffee in the morning as way of supporting her mother through mental illness. Anna has only one photo of her dad, which she talks to every night, and that Anna likes dogs. But other than that, we don’t know much about Anna – she is a passive character, in which echoes of Hannah can be felt.
Hannah is much the same – a passive character describing the people and events around her. Perhaps then it is apt that Hannah is given a camera and discovers her passion for photography; a hobby that she loses quite quickly after the events surrounding the St. Louis ship. Hannah is the camera that observes the events, taking photos of seemingly mundane every life, but it is a reminder of how important life is.
This book was recommended to me to read, and I’ll be honest, I started for the recommendation but ended up staying for the description of the architecture of Cuba, interwoven with the competing smells of violet, basil, mint and jasmine, as well as the thoughts about displacement, struggles with identity, and the idea of home in a society that doesn’t want you and considers you to be less than human.
The book is based on the true story of the over 900 passengers of the St. Louis ship, which sailed off from Hamburg to Cuba but was refused entry in Cuba, America and Canada. As a result, it was forced to return to Europe – where France, Belgium, Holland and the UK took the passengers. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards war broke out and only those who were settled in the UK survived; the remaining passengers were often killed or sent to concentration camps.
With the current refugee crisis occurring, these thoughts about displacement, identity struggles and hatred got me thinking about the individuals who are fleeing their homes. It made me think of that there are currently girls fleeing from hatred, observing the world and trying to make sense of it all – just like Hannah did.
So, despite the flaws in the writing, “The German Girl” is an interesting read, but it isn’t necessarily one that I would recommend without contemplation. It’s best read within a book club setting where discussions like identity struggles, displacement and hatred can be soundly discussed.