A Berlin Love Song
Perfectly pitched to YA readers, this is a beautifully evoked love story between a Romani girl and a German soldier during WWII. The events unfold from both viewpoints: Max, who looks back to the feelings that overwhelmed him as a seventeen-year-old, encountering dark-haired Lili for the first time. And Lili, a trapeze artist from a circus family, whose love for a middle-class Berlin gadjo was always doomed.
Sarah Matthias set out to write about the under-documented persecution of Romani people under Hitler. She succeeds here quite brilliantly. We see the build-up of the Reich, the events of war and the dire experience of the camps through the disbelieving eyes and love-fogged brains of these two characters and their very different families.
The main story thread is a poignant one and has the ring of emotional truth, but the novel touches on many other emotional complexities in war. Max, a reluctant conscript, gets sucked into the camaraderie and glory of being a gunner. Not all the SS guards in the Romani concentration camp lack humanity.
This is a long read that is well-paced and always absorbing. Matthias is adept at evoking family life and its daily details: ‘I stared at her legs with a brotherly eye. Were those real silk stockings or just gravy browning and a line of pencil?’ She skilfully weaves in Romani words, stories and customs, such as when Lili risks telling a long Zigeuner (Roma) story to Doktor Mengele, notorious in real life for his experimentation on prisoners.
I loved everything about this book, from the freshness of the writing: ‘Helmuth roared into the farmyard on his motorbike, scattering hens like skittles’, to the harsh intensity of a romance ensnared in the dark events of the Romani Holocaust. One for every library and older-teenage bookshelf.