The blurb on the back of the proof copy (which I was kindly sent by Klara Zak at Cornerstone, Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review) states that: “this is historical fiction with contemporary relevance,” and it is absolutely clear from the opening pages of this book that the author is presenting us with something quite new here. This is far from yet another historical novel set in World War II. To start with, the story opens in 1946, with the protagonist, Clara, in hiding in Hamelin, Germany. The war is over, but its effects loom large; everyone is hungry, everyone is struggling to survive. Deceit is all around, from Clara’s false name and papers to her relationship with a doctor whose past, it is quickly discovered, is stained in horrors. Immediately the reader is presented with the idea of a reckoning, of actions hidden under the cloak of wartime being dragged into the light. It is hugely confronting, uncomfortable and above all, impressively unique as an opening. I could feel myself recoiling from the Doctor almost physically, and even from Clara herself. It is a bold writer who casts such doubt on her protagonist so early in a novel, but it pays off.
Guilt and culpability are important themes in this book, as Germany comes to terms with the actions of its citizens during the war years. Scott handles this immensely fraught issue with a skilful touch – characters wrestle with their consciences constantly, and there are no easy answers for anybody. Clara’s story is intercut with that of Jakob, a black marketeer who, for me, provided an anchor, a character who, though by no means perfect, is less troubling than Clara herself in terms of someone to root for. There is also another character who has short, effective chapters dedicated to his experience, but to say more here would be a spoiler. When Clara returns to her hometown of Essen, where she once ran the Falkenberg iron works and became a wartime icon, the tension is ramped up. Pursued by Captain Fenshaw, who has discovered her true identity, Clara must try and discover what has become of her best friend, Elisa, and her son Willy, before Clara herself is caught.
There are plenty of twists and turns as the story rattles along, and Scott is adept at both vivid description and action-packed scenes. The plot is complicated without being convoluted, and although it initially frustrated me that we only hear second-hand about many of the ‘big events’ of these characters’ lives, eventually I came to see this as a real strength of this book. The sense of ‘the aftermath’ hangs on every page, and makes for a unique narrative experience. Though part of me was deeply curious to see Clara running the iron works, or Jakob at the Russian front, I realised that there is something incredibly true-to-life about having to rely on people’s narrated versions of significant events. To a great extent, that is how history works.
This is a book which approaches its historical period at a slant. It does not dive into the action of World War Two, but takes the time to methodically and intelligently dissect the problematic ‘what comes next’ that is not often dealt with in fiction. I have to say that I applaud Scott for not writing about Clara’s wartime experience, for choosing this hugely complicated arc for her character. There were occasions when I would have liked Clara’s inner struggles to be more directly linked to the plot, but again, I think it is more natural and nuanced to have the two running parallel rather than just being cause and effect. This is a book that really got me thinking. It is both a gripping, character-driven story and, I believe, a novel that offers a profoundly courageous alternative to traditional historical fiction tropes.
Finding Clara was published by Hutchinson on 5th March 2020. It will be published in the States by William Morrow as The German Heiress on 7th April 2020.
About the Author: Anika Scott lives with her husband and two daughters in Essen, Germany, where her debut novel is set. She grew up in Michigan, USA and has degrees in International Politics and Journalism. She began her career wanting to be a CIA agent and had security clearance from an internship at the State Department in Washington, but CIA applications included never being able to write stories or keep a diary. Anika loves stories too much for that, and so became a journalist instead. She was staff on the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune before becoming a freelance journalist in Germany: her work has appeared widely in the US and European media. She runs an online resource about post-war Germany at www.postwargermany.com