Wunderland: A Novel

Written by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Review by Janice Derr

Ava has given up on trying to develop a closer relationship with her mother, Ilse. All of her questions go unanswered. Who was her father, and why was she left at an orphanage at the end of WWII? It is easier to sever ties entirely than to deal with her mother’s emotional distance and secrets. Then in 1989, a box unexpectedly arrives containing Ilse’s ashes and a packet of letters addressed to someone named Renate Bauer. After reading the letters, Ava finally understands what shaped her mother into the person she became.

The novel switches between Ava and Ilse and Renate, two best friends growing up in Germany before the beginning of the war. The girls are inseparable until the Nazi Party takes over and turns their world upside down. Enticed by the promise of building a stronger Germany, Ilse becomes an active member of the Hitler Youth and starts writing for their propaganda publications. Meanwhile, Renate is shocked to discover her father was born Jewish. The news makes friendship between the girls impossible and leads to an unthinkable act of betrayal.

Epstein does not shy away from her description of the atrocities Ilse and Renate witnessed and endured. One comes to expect this from novels set during WWII, but at times this book feels like an open wound, and I had to put it down to take a break. Other than a brief hint of hope at the end, there is very little relief in the characters’ suffering, but perhaps that was the author’s intention, to show the long-lasting impact of war. A painful and challenging read.