Julia Hardcover – 27 Oct 2011
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'A masterpiece' Peter Henning, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung)
'An excellent storyline ... vivid descriptions and easy poetic language' Historical Novels Review. (Historical Novels Review)
'Extraordinary ... It is as chilling as it is sad and familiar' Irish Times. (Irish Times)
'Julia is a book that goes straight to the heart' Vrij Nederland. (Vrij Nederland)
About the Author
Otto de Kat is the pen name of a Dutch publisher. His prize-winning previous work is published in Holland, Germany and France.
Top customer reviews
We then move back in time and the story is told from the perspective of Christaan, who when young and working in Lubeck in 1938, meets and falls in love with the beautiful Julia Bender, a talented German engineer. From the first moment he sees her, he is irresistibly drawn to her and somehow knows that their meeting will hold great significance for him. Both Julia and her actor brother, Andreas, are talented, courageous and value their freedom, but, when Andreas flouts the authority of the Nazi regime and Julia supports him, Christaan realizes that their days together are numbered. When the authorities arrest Andreas, and Julia just manages to escape, she tells Christaan that he must leave her and return to Holland otherwise he will jeopardise her safety and his own. Although Christiaan fears he is making a mistake in leaving, he listens to Julia's pleas and allows her to persuade him to catch the next train out of Germany and return to his homeland.
This beautifully written novel moves forwards and backwards in time and, in spare, impressionistic and poetic prose the author relates what happens to Christaan after he leaves Julia. As time passes, and we follow Christaan through his life, we come to see that he simply cannot forget Julia and how his love for her lives on. This is an elegant and elegiac novel that shows us that it is not always what we do that causes us regret, but what we fail to do that can cause us even more sorrow and remorse.
Still there must have been a fair amount of pain before getting this far.
The key to that pain is lying on the desk in front of him: a German newspaper from 1942 with a list of names on the front page circled in red. There is also has Dudok's diary, left on the backseat of the car the night before when he asked to be dropped off early so that he could walk the rest of the way home (this in itself might have been a warning sign from a man who would have been driven 'right into his study, had that been possible.') From this end point de Kat then goes back to tell Dudok's story in three different times. We go back to Lübeck, Germany in 1938 where Chris is sent by his father to gain some factory experience before taking over the family business back in Holland. He's sees the native fervour with an outsider's eye.
'The spirit of the times seized him by the throat. Crazed masses rallied on a whim, marching and parading with soldierly discipline, Lübeck thrumming with excitement for the leader's new teachings. There was no getting away from the man. He appeared not to be taken so seriously in Holland, as though his ravings were put through a strain at the border. But the artist from Vienna was crafty, in his opinion, barking mad, but very clever. The radio seemed invented expressly for him, forever blasting into people's sitting rooms. Nobody thought to switch him off.'
Whilst there he meets a female engineer, Julia Bender, who may be a German but sees the Nazi regime with the same distance as Chris - 'I don't belong anywhere; I have no desire to belong.' - and he falls in love with her. Any hopes of a satisfying love story are delayed by Chris's tentativeness and then interrupted by the provocative actions of Julia's actor brother who enrages the regime, putting them both in danger, at a time when Nazi violence is about to reach a definitive moment.
Julia insists that Chris leave Germany and return to Holland, leaving her behind. His desire to please her means that he obeys her order, turning his back on a woman he was only just beginning to know and yet whose feelings he won't bgin to comprehend until many years later. This is to be the action that in many ways defines his life, or perhaps more accurately: his death. In the second strand of the novel we see Chris move into middle age at home, into a marriage that falters, into his enforced tenure at the head of the family firm, a life that seems to follow along a set of tracks as fixed as those that took him away from Germany and from Julia. The third and final strand follows Chris on that walk home on his last night as he gives his life a final reckoning. The way in which de Kat moves between these three separate viewpoints is as seamless and fluid as memory and his prose throughout is spare (as I have come to expect from Dutch novelists of late) but with moments of wonderful poetry. In a novel about freedom and its opposite he helps us to see that though Chris is fortunate enough to be able to escape the growing horror in Germany we have to question how much or in what way he was able to escape it at all.
The theme isn't new: Dutch boy falls for German girl on the wrong side of the Nazis and regrets what happened. But it isn't yet another Holocaust tale (please, we want to keep the subject alive but it is just too easy for novelists) and you don't feel as if it is a historical fiction author just doing time again...it is sparse and real with the detail added, correctly, as an aside.
Just a joy to read. Effortless.
This is elegant. It also moves us. Even if we know what's going to happen from the start. The ONLY reason I don't give 5 stars is because a) going back and forth got confusing and its too easy as a plot device b) it was short and so plot was also short on the ground.
I'd read any of his books again. Please: publishers take note. This is what we want more of.
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