This book takes place in West Germany just after the end of WWII. Germany is recovering and rebuilding from air raids; the streets have been filled in with new brick and structures are re-built and livable again. The Bruhns are trying to forget the past and live in the present. Matriarch Edith Bruhn and her husband Ludwig are trying to negotiate his crippling back pain and their restaurant, young son Stefan is torn between the world he knew as a child and the modern-day, their daughter Annegret has some questionable habits, and Eva is amid inner turmoil over her soon-to-be husband Jürgan. Eva is 24 and living with her parents who own a restaurant on a busy --often seedy street-- and live above it. She works through a local agency as a Polish translator. Late one night she receives a phone call, while her love interest Jürgan is visiting, which requires her to go into work at a late hour. While there, Eva is exposed to a harrowing account of a Holocaust survivor. Later, her expertise is requested again since she is the only Polish translator that is available. She then finds out that what she will be working on is a huge deal, as it turns out to be one of the Auschwitz trials of 1963. She begins to dig into her work, taking pride in giving a voice to those who cannot be heard in Germany. While this is happening she also begins to sense something else growing beneath the surface that is related directly to her own family and their hushed past. At the same time, Eva is dealing with the idea of collective guilt, the burden of being German, coming-of-age, female subservience, marriage, and being a modern woman.
There is so much in this book to unpack that you could literally read it a few times and probably come away with different details each time. It just feels so richly layered and intense. There were several times when I had to go back and re-read a section of pages just to let it sink it more. Actually, when I finished the book, I went back a few pages and reread a section that was a huge turning point in the book just to make sure I got it fully (and honestly, I'm still not sure I did!). But seriously, this book is packed with so much. I really appreciated that the author used some actual text and quotes from historical documents from the first Auschwitz trial; obviously, Hess did her research and I am so appreciative of that.
As far as writing, I was really loving the way this book was done. It is divided into four sections but other than that, there are no real divisions in this book. There are no chapters in the traditional sense, which gives this book a real chronologically-important feel. It also makes this a book that you cannot put down; "just one more paragraph," will easily turn into "100 pages later." The writing in this book gives a very similar feeling as it isn't florid or beautiful per se, but quick stark and basic. It feels very cut and dry. I don't know if this is because it was translated from German or if that is how the author wanted it to feel. While I don't normally go for this and it did take me a bit to get used to and get into, it really added to the overall feeling of the book and gave it a very serious feel and tone. In the end, I really liked that since the characters are so flawed and realistic. It just made it all feel so much more real and covered in a thin layer of guilt and soot.
Hess is fantastic when it comes to creating and writing this flawed by human characters, especially when it comes to those that have blatant good and bad sides. The duality in this book, and how it manifests in multiple ways is so well done here. Whereas the story itself is a strong one, the characters are really where Hess' writing shines.
I was really intrigued by the overall treatment of the subject and the German people. I have never really learned much about WWII or the period of time directly afterward, so I had no idea what happened during denazification or even thought about how the German people dealt with what had happened. I liked that this book really got into those subjects and gave a glimpse into what it could have been like for Germans in that period of time after the war. The idea of collective guilt, in this case about the war crimes committed, is also a subject that I never thought about even though it is still a thing that happens today, probably right now. The book presents a very interesting perspective on this, especially at the end. I was so taken by the part of the book where Eva makes light of this idea and tries to address it. That scene was one of the most difficult and sad for me to read. Hess layered so much emotion into that scene that speaks beyond it and this book. There are some very heavy-hitting thoughts, realizations, and meditations in this book that come to light and should probably be discussed.
Overall, I cannot give this book anything less than 5 stars. It was brilliantly written with just enough emotion and facts to give it its own legs to stand on. There is a rich depth when it comes to characters and character plots in this book that cover a huge range. There is also a larger story here that should certainly be discussed about humanity, human nature, and what greed and evil can and has done in the past.