Hannah & Emil

Written by Belinda Castles
Review by Waheed Rabbani

“Herr Becker, we must find you some shoes, and then supper,” says Hannah to Emil, while shaking his hand after being introduced at a trade unionists’ meeting at the Maison du Peuple in Brussels in 1933. While it is likely love at first sight, for dinner leads to a nightcap, they are from very diverse backgrounds. Hannah is a single 26-year-old strong-minded Englishwoman, born to Russian Jews. She is working as a translator, having gone to Europe to promote workers’ rights. Emil is a married thirty-something German Aryan and a WWI veteran. But being a staunch Socialist he has escaped from the Nazis’ maltreatment, leaving his wife and children behind in Germany. In 1936 the lovers are in London, living with Hannah’s mother. Stateless Emil, after working at several odd jobs, is again unemployed and despondent. Fortunately, through Hannah’s connections, he finally secures a stable position as the warden of a youth hostel that includes accommodation. Nevertheless, in just a few short years, WWII shatters Hannah’s and Emil’s blissful life. Emil is interned and transported. Hannah crosses the seas, desperately seeking Emil’s release.

Belinda Castles’ use of the story of a present-day Sydney, Australia resident, Flora, as an overall framing device for the plot works brilliantly. It adds much realism to the unfolding of Hannah’s and Emil’s story. Castles has based this novel on her grandparents’ life and their hard times during the 20th century. As if in a movie, their superb story is masterfully brought before our eyes. While Hannah’s and Emil’s paths do not cross until about halfway into the book, the detailed narration of their younger days, although distracting at times, is intriguing. It portrays the development of these resilient characters admirably. Following their meeting, the novel becomes a page-turner. Although the finale is predictable, this family saga of endearing love and valour is enjoyable. Recommended.