Content Warning: References to Anti-Semitism
Mother of three and up and coming author Louise Fein has released her debut novel this week, a story of a young German girl in Nazi Germany, her family, her friendships, and ultimately, the boy who saved her from drowning as a child.
In this excellent debut by Fein, we are guided through the childhood and adolescence of young and proudly German girl, Hetty Heinrich. We are led from her near-death at the lake, saved by her brother’s blonde friend Walter, to the tree house, to school and ultimately to her understanding of what it means to live in Hitler’s Germany, post World War I. Getting to read this book, pre-publication was an honour, and it gave me time to sit down and really immerse myself in young Hetty’s world.
Forbidden love in the chaos of 1930’s Germany is by no means an easy story to tackle, and Fein certainly tackles the romance and heartache of star crossed young love with gusto, creating a stunning symphony of sadness, nostalgia and glints of light in the darkness. Hetty is a feisty and tenacious young girl, with big dreams, but cannot see how she fits into Hitler’s plan for Germany as a woman, and I have not seen ideas like these explored so cleverly in literature before, particularly alongside the political exploration of the communist agenda and those opposing Hitler.
Reading so vividly about the rise of anti-semitism, the hope the German people had in Hitler and the normalisation of eugenics and the oppression of free information and so many parts of society was upsetting and difficult to say the least. Seeing a young girl and her family climb the ranks of Reich Society and truly believe the propaganda being spread, is really upsetting.
But, I have never read anything so well-written that it makes you so convincingly angry as a reader. The yarn weaved by Fein is a thick and complex one, with difficult themes, disgraceful characters and the delicate structures of love, hatred, politics and family. Walter is an incredibly crafted character, embodying so much of the misinformation and miseducation about Jewish people at the time, subverting tropes and being a force for change, understanding and clarity. Fein conveys the heinous acts committed against the Jewish people of Leipzig and beyond with huge amounts of honesty and grace.
Seeing the contrasts between the lives of so many families, and getting to see a timeline of events for the everyday family as Germany hurtled towards another war is really moving, as we can see the genuine development of the situation, of course with the heart-wrenching love shared between two young teenagers at the core of the story.
It is incredibly moving how we see Hetty and Walter grow and develop throughout this novel, and seeing ideologies shift and tensions change, taking you on a monumental emotional adventure. Fein has done something very special here, using a novel to so carefully interpret the individual sentiments and lives of Jewish people and German people during Hitler’s tyranny, and you cannot help but feel the deep emotions felt by the characters at certain poignant moments in the book. Be those the end, the twisted love experienced, or the tragic loss felt ricocheting throughout the plot.
This is a masterclass in debut novel creation, and I cannot wait to see what Fein produces next. I know it will most likely have me in tears, but I know I will be keeping an eye out for her next novel. People Like Us was like nothing I have read before.
To read People Like Us, get a copy here.