Title: The Viennese Girl
Author: Jenny Lecoat
Published: May 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Genre: Fiction (Historical – WWII)
I received a copy of The Viennese Girl unsolicited from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Inspired by the true story of a young Jewish girl – Hedy Bercu – who fled to Jersey from Vienna only to find herself trapped on the island during the German occupation.
Hedy Bercu, a young Jewish girl from Vienna who fled to the isolation and safety of Jersey two years earlier to escape the Nazis, finds herself once more trapped, but this time with no way of escape.
Hiding her racial status, Hedy is employed by the German authorities and secretly embarks on small acts of resistance. But most dangerously of all, she falls in love with German lieutenant Kurt Neumann — a relationship on which her life will soon depend.
A remarkable novel of finding hope and love when all seems at its darkest.
I’m always cautious going into historical fiction because it’s not something I reach for often, although when I do it does tend to be World War II related. As with any book that I receive unsolicited I always have a sense of apprehension because I’m a creature of habit and I know what I like to read. I did enjoy The Viennese Girl – it’s well written and easy to read and a page turner as we, the reader, want to know what exactly is going to happen to Hedy.
Set in 1940 as the island of Jersey is invaded by German army, we follow Hedy Bercu, an Austrian girl who fled there two years prior to escape the Nazis. Now, she’s trapped again, and forced to hide her racial status in order to find work for the German army as a translator, where she decides to dabble in some subtle espionage on behalf of the town. Her path crosses with Kurt Neumann, a German lieutenant who is immediately struck by Hedy, and who doesn’t live up to Hedy’s expectations of a German soldier.
This is an atmospheric historical novel, set on an island during the war. We spend our experiencing the events from the perspectives of both Hedy and Kurt, as they try to make sense of the changing world around them.
Hedy is, understandably, unimpressed with Kurt initially – her experiences with German soldiers to this point has been less than favourable – but she does eventually begin to realise that he may not be what she first thought. Hedy is a strong, independent woman who’s afraid of what will happen to her if her status a Jew is discovered. She doesn’t want to take a job as a translator for the German army, but does because she’s practical enough to realise she needs the money, and wiley enough that she sees an opportunity to undermine the Germans by undertaking small acts of resistance that benefit the town doctor. She is determined to survive, no matter the cost, and we see her transform from being scared to being someone who will do what it takes to stay alive.
Kurt is an interesting character, in that he’s a German officer, but one who doesn’t appear to buy into the propaganda, bringing to the forefront the fact that not ever German aligned with their leaders goals and that some did, in fact, need to been seen to in order to survive themselves. This is demonstrated when Kurt takes the blame for one of Hedy’s acts of resistance, quite happily spending that time in jail, because he understands both her frustration and her anger.
They have a rocky relationship from the start until they begin to develop trust and understanding and that all felt very natural. As did the other main relationship in the story, which is the slow-developed friendship between Hedy and Dorothea Weber, a young woman who marries Hedy’s best friend before he is conscripted and sent off to fight in the war. The relationship between Hedy and Dorothea takes time, and Hedy’s inability to trust people is what slows it down, but once that trust is built, it’s solid and the two women support each other.
While I wouldn’t have picked this book up on my own, I’m glad I read it. There’s so many interesting, well told stories about this time period that each one I read adds a new layer and perspective. That it’s inspired by a young Austrian woman who lived on Jersey during this time makes it all the more fascinating.