The Second World War, a sinister conspiracy with incalculable consequences for all mankind, an undercover mission like no other, a cast of despicable characters who can’t be trusted at all, and a young female hero who can hold her own amongst all these monsters – honestly, it’s as if this novel was written from my own wish list.
At the start, Germany is in the inflexible grip of the Nazis and careering into a war with the rest of Europe that there’s every chance it will win. Before the gates come down for good, a Jewish mother tries to flee Germany with her young daughter Sarah, but before the first few pages are through, that plan ends abruptly. Now orphaned, Sarah must make her own way out, but on the cusp of making it to safety, she takes pity on a mysterious man who will surely face certain death if she doesn’t pretend to be his daughter.
That decision may be her greatest mistake – or the best choice she has ever made. The man she has saved is a British captain, a lone wolf spy investigating Nazi experiments into a devastating new weapon. He’s trying to find a way into an eccentric scientist’s personal laboratory, and here is where Sarah may be able to help him. If she can befriend the scientist’s daughter, she can get an invitation to the house, and then let the captain in.
But to befriend the daughter, Sarah must infiltrate a boarding school. Here, a Jewish girl in an institution designed to churn out dutiful, brainwashed Nazi monsters, she must become Ursula Haller, who isn’t an orphan, isn’t a monster, but who nobody must discover is a spy who could destroy them all.
This book was placed directly into my hands not because that person knew it would be right up my street, but simply because they had enjoyed it so much. Its broad concept reminded me of Auslander by Paul Dowswell, which I enjoyed immensely years ago, but it quickly diverges from following a similar path once Sarah is not simply pretending to be someone she isn’t to save her life, but maintaining a ruse to head even deeper into the heart of danger.
It’s a superbly crafted thriller that never loses touch of the human story of this girl who has lost everything so has nothing else to lose, but needs to come back from that. The Nazis aren’t necessarily the only threat to worry about, of course, because Sarah is well aware that the British captain might well be using her for his own ends, and won’t think about saving her life as she saved his once those ends are met.
The dynamic in their relationship, which is ultimately more balanced than he might have imagined, really lifts this from a being a thrilling yarn into being a wonderful human story as well. I see a second book featuring the pair of them has recently been published, but it certainly has a lot to live up to.