on 19 July 2001
This is a very enjoyable book, moving without being saccherine and dealing with the complex emotional and national issues surrounding war and family without being heavy-handed. De Loo's flash-backs to the appalling situation in the Netherlands during the German occupation of WWII are brilliantly written, and subtly nuanced by her accounts of the problems encountered by civilian Germans in the same period. A compellig read, once started, I couldn't put it down.
WARNING: ONE READER HAS COMPLAINED THAT THIS REVIEW GIVES AWAY TOO MUCH OF THE STORY.
Anna and Lotte are twin sisters, born in Cologne in 1916. Their mother died when they were three years old, their father of tuberculosis when they were six. Their grandfather, a brutish farmer, took Anna to his farm, expecting many years of hard work from her; but he would not take Lotte, who was herself possibly tubercular: he sent her to his sister who lived in Holland, and whose daughter and son-in-law took her into their family. And so the twins were separated. Neither of them were happy in their adoptive families, though Anna had the more dreadful experiences.
The book begins in 1990, when by chance the now 74-year old twins meet again at Spa in Belgium where they are both taking the cure for arthritis. Lotte had survived the war under German occupation in Holland, although her Jewish lover had not. Her Dutch family had, at huge risk to themselves, sheltered many Jews and left-wingers from the Germans. So there are reasons why she wants to keep her distance from Anna, who had grown up in Nazi Germany. It doesn't help that Anna displays a German tactlessness, insensitivity and loudness. But they can't keep away from each other, and over countless visits to the cafés of Spa (among other hardships, they had both experienced extreme hunger during the war) they do tell each other about their past lives. Lotte listens reluctantly, bristles frequently, especially when she feels called upon to sympathize with the sufferings Anna had gone through, while Anna is trying hard to get close to her sister, who is after all her only relative. Anna's husband, an army officer, had been killed right at the end of the war. Only a fortnight before that, though he did not like the Nazis or the war, he had, as a fit young man, been pressured to join the Waffen-SS: Lotte, by now a mother and grandmother, is not disposed to sympathize with her widowed and childless sister.
Actually, for all her brashness, Anna is not a bad person. She is feisty, tough, and fearless. She had initially ignored, then despised the Nazis, but had ended up by not thinking much about politics. During the war she, like Lotte, had worn herself out selflessly helping those who needed help (not Jews, true; she was not in a position to do that; but wounded soldiers and, one occasion, Russian prisoners of war.) She does rage against the ferocious bombing of the Allies and against the occupation forces after the war, whom she does not see as liberators. She does not feel any personal guilt and finds Lotte's reactions hard to cope with; but she has never been a person to give up, and she keeps on battling against Lotte's attitude.
There are vivid descriptions of suffering, both in Holland and in Germany. Clearly the sheer scale of destruction that befell the German armies and German civilians at the end of the war (and the terrible conditions after the war) exceed even the horrors the Dutch had experienced during and after the war. In this way they certainly weigh more heavily in the book, just as the juicy and robust Anna dominates the novel as against the altogether paler, embittered figure of Lotte, who is stereotypically projecting onto Anna the feelings that she has towards all Germans. At the beginning of the book, my sympathies were with Lotte; I shared her shrinking before this brash German woman; but as the novel progresses, I not only began to respect Anna and sympathize with what she had gone through, but became somewhat irritated with Lotte's rather prissy unwillingness to let down her guard against someone who was after all her twin sister. Anna (echoing, I think, the Dutch author's feelings) reflects at the end: `If the two of them ... would not succeed in stepping over silly obstacles tossed up by history, who on earth could do so?' My own view is that the obstacles were not exactly silly (that is an example of Anna's crudity), but that De Loo's book is a legitimate protest against the tendency of burdening all Germans (even as late as 1993 when the book was first published) with guilt for what the Nazis did.
This is a compelling read which demands attention. In 1990, in the Belgian town of Spa, elderly women gather to take the peat baths which are renowned to help arthritis. Among them are Lotte and Anna, twins separated for many years and reunited by Lotte's decision to answer a question in High German rather than in French. Anna starts to question her: where are you from, what street, what number and deduces from the answers that Lotte is her sister. Lotte is far from delighted at this revelation. Although they are both German by birth, the death of first their mother, then their father led to Lotte being taken to Holland while Anna was left in Germany. Born in 1916 they were young adults by the time the war broke out and both have their tales to tell of the hardships they faced.
The structure of the novel is such that their past lives are revealed through their tales to each other interspersed with glimpses of their interaction. This is difficult; Lotte is unforgiving of Germany and Germans and her sister's attempts to explain what life was like for her before, during and after the war strike her as bumptious, clumsy and self righteous. It is a credit to the writer that we do end up having sympathy for Anna as a character and in many ways she is the more powerful character. This is perhaps due to her story being a less familiar one. Lotte's tales of hiding Jews and communist sympathizers is one we tend to know better from films and literature about the war.
It took me a little time to get into the novel, something which other reviewers have noted but I stuck with it and I'm really glad I did. This is a compassionate book, full of understanding about the horrors of war.
on 13 February 2001
If you ever read one book in your life this is a must. When I reached the end I wanted to re-read it over and over again.
The Twins tells a compelling story of Anna and Lotte twin sisters who following the death of their parents are separated at a very early age. Lotte is sent to stay with her relatives in the Netherlands to recuperate from tuberculosis and Anna stays with relatives in Germany.
The story begins with a chance meeting at the health resort of Spa. Both sisters are now in their 70's and have lost contact with each other and in the intervening years the Second World War has taken place. Thus evolves a tale of human suffering, spanning many decades, from both the german and dutch perspectives, which are contained in a number of haunting flashbacks. It's a beautifully written descriptive book that is not only thought provoking but inspirational. Tessa de loo's description of the hardships endured by not only the dutch but the german people in the Second World War will impinge forever on your memory. Have a box of tissues handy.
on 24 November 2005
This book is a must if you are interested in the what the Second World War did to the lives of ordinary people.
The book tells the personal story of two sisters born in Germany in the early 1902s, who are seperated when six years old. One is growing up in The Netherlands, having a relatively secured childhood, the other grows up in Germany, where she is used as a free help on a farm.
The movie made after the book has been praised all over the world for its unbiased way of showing that talking about right or wrong is easy after a war is over, but is not that black-and-white for the people enduring a war. This also resulted in the criticism that the story defends the German excuse 'Wir haben es nicht gewusst' (we didn't know). This is ungrounded, however. Tessa De Loo does show it is not only about whether or not people knew what was going on, but, more importantly, whether or not they believed it, and how they acted accordingly. (For example: many Jews in The Netherlands did not flee when the first rumours of concentration camps started, simply because they could not believe it was true. Why then, do we after the war suddenly say that the Germans should have known and done something?) De Loo shows that not all people can be heroes, that peple often prefer to turn a blind I in order to preserve the life they have builded for themselves. She shows how many people were sucked into a situation they felt they couldn't control.
I feel this book tries to make us realise people should be careful to judge the wrongs of others in a to black-and-white manner. This is not to say that these wrongs can be justified, but just to not overlook the human side, the duality that occures in most situations.
on 1 May 2016
Due to unfortunate family circumstances two German twin sisters become separate during childhood. One grows up in Holland with a Dutch family during WW2, becoming detached from her German origins, and her German identity. By chance they meet again late in life, and spend time together describing to each other their hardships before and during the war. They are keen explain their actions and those of others on 'their side' of the war, but there is also is a sense of one-up-manship in the recounting of their hardships. Because of their differring experiences and view points of the war, and despite their attempts at a good reconciliation, they find it hard to sympathise with each other. It is generally interesting, though I sometimes got lost or my mind wondered off in the detail, so perhaps a 3.5.