The English Girl

Written by Margaret Leroy
Review by Marilyn Sherlock

In 1937, pianist Stella Whittaker is accepted as a student at the prestigious Academy of Music in Vienna. Her mother arranges for her to stay with old family friends, Rainer and Marthe Krause, and under the spell of the city’s musical romanticism Stella falls passionately in love when she meets Harri Reznik, a young Jewish psychiatrist. But dark clouds are sweeping across Austria from Hitler’s Germany, and Stella finds herself caught between the increasing persecutions suffered by Harri and his family and the obligation she is under to Rainer, Marthe and their lonely son, Lukas. Adding to her anxiety is an unwelcome approach by a British agent who wants her to become a spy.

Stella is not always an appealing heroine. Given that she is only seventeen, politically naïve and therefore unaware of what is really going on in Germany at the time, she can be forgiven for the way in which she dithers and denies the truth even in the face of growing violence. But it is her immature whiny displays of petulance and jealousy that are more irritating, and they often overshadow her positive points in her concern for the welfare of others.

The secondary characters are all far more interesting than Stella, and they ultimately rescue this story, including her callous friend Anneliese, the British spy Reece, the enigmatic Rainer, the compulsively obsessive Marthe, the superstitious maid, Janika.

For the most part the narrative is stylish and flows smoothly, but it has unfortunate stumbles in its banal and coarse sexual descriptions that cheapen the overall effect. By way of contrast, the sense of time and place has been finely crafted and is most effective in the way the light enchantment of Vienna noticeably fades into sombre tones as the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion.