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Superb novel that brings Berlin of the 1930s and 40s to terrifying life
on 9 November 2012
It's 1920 and two baby boys are born in Berlin. Paulus and Otto are brothers, the twin sons of devoted and happy parents Frieda Stengel, a doctor, and her musician husband Wolfgang. As they grow, the two boys share everything in common except for one thing - blood. While this doesn't matter in the least to their family, as the years go by it starts to matter very much indeed. This is because on the same night that the boys are born, another life screams into existence in Berlin, the National Socialist German Workers Party, and Frieda and Wolfgang are Jewish. Over the next twenty years, each covered in compelling and heart wrenching detail in this fine novel, we watch as their human rights are eroded one by one until, finally, the brothers have to use all their wits to survive.
This isn't just the tale of Otto and Paulus, though. Two Brothers is an immensely rich and captivating portrayal of the lives of many of the family's friends, relatives and colleagues, some Jewish, some not Jewish, but all compelled to play a part in the Nazi hell that is consuming their country and city. The stories of Otto and Paulus are entwined completely with those of two girls: Silke,a Christian, and Dagmar Fischer, a rich Jewish girl. The four children form the Saturday Club. As they grow into teenagers and young adults, this Club takes on a whole new significance and the ties between them become lifelines.
Years ago I remember reading Ben Elton's novels (particularly Stark and Gridlock) while both enjoying and being irritated by his stand-up humour during those hard years in the 1980s. Any doubts as to the pathos and tragedy that Ben Elton can instil into his humour were dispelled by Blackadder. Those same qualities are perfected in Two Brothers. Ben Elton has always been loud and a strand of that can be detected in this novel in its rare melodramatic scenes. But, without doubt, those moments, and they are few and far between, are the only minor failings in this wonderful book.
Reading Two Brothers was an enthralling, painful, emotional and glorious experience. It makes no pretences. Info dumps are avoided, instead the history is revealed through the novel's stories and people, in the most involving way, bringing the history to life. Have no doubt, though. This book is full of historical details and is steeped in atmosphere.
I read Two Brothers in two days and I'll read it again. Without doubt, one of my very favourite novels of the year. I'm grateful for the review copy.