Monday, 15 April 2013

Book Review: TWO BROTHERS by Ben Elton

Two Brothers

Title: Two Brothers
Author: Ben Elton
Publisher: Bantam Press
Read: April 05 - 15, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Berlin 1920:

Two babies are born.

Two brothers. United and indivisible, sharing everything. Twins in all but blood.

As Germany marches into its Nazi Armageddon, the ties of family, friendship and love are tested to the very limits of endurance. And the brothers are faced with an unimaginable choice....Which one of them will survive?

Ben Elton's most personal novel to date,Two Brothers transports the reader to the time of history's darkest hour.

My thoughts:

I loved this book, and it may be the best I have read in 2013 so far! Based loosely on Ben Elton’s own family history, Two Brothers is a heartbreaking story of war, tragedy and sacrifice, family ties and first love. It took me on a 518-page long emotional roller coaster ride that will haunt me for a long time to come yet.

Berlin, 1920: Despite Germany being a political powder keg, life is good for Frieda and Wolfgang Stengel. Frieda is expecting twins, whilst finishing her medical degree. Wolfgang is a successful musician playing in Berlin’s jazz clubs, very much in love with his beautiful smart wife. When one of their twin boys is stillborn, the couple don’t hesitate to adopt the child of a single mother who died in childbirth merely an hour before Frieda’s babies were born – and their set of twins is complete again.

For years the two boys, Otto and Paulus, are unaware that they are not related by blood, and their doting parents see a bit of themselves in each one of them. Paulus, the clever twin, and Otto, the brave strong one. Each one loved equally, unaware of the circumstances of their birth.

But in 1920 another baby is also born – Hitler’s  Nationalist Socialist Party. With Hitler’s rise to power and his relentless propaganda blaming Jews for all of Germany’s woes, Jewish families like the Stengels suffer from the ever-increasing hatred against their people, finding themselves shunned and alienated by their own countrymen. Tragedy is never far away, and the Stengels are not exempt. Their only chance of survival may be the fact that their adopted son is not Jewish – forcing Frieda to make an impossible choice …

I loved everything about this book. From the very first page, Elton spins a web which draws in the reader and doesn’t let go until the very last page – and far beyond, because I can’t stop thinking about this novel. By starting the story with the birth of the two main protagonists, the Stengel twins, at the same time as the political power which will be their undoing, Elton skilfully sets the atmosphere and paints a vivid picture of life in the Weimar republic. So realistic are the characters that I could clearly see Frieda’s and Wolfgang’s home, hear the creaking of the cart Wolfgang uses to get his pregnant wife to hospital, see Frieda grieve for her stillborn child in a cold and colourless hospital room. Following the boys’ early lives I was lured into a false sense of security, which brought home the impact of Hitler’s anti-semitic politics with extra force.

Having grown up in Europe and having had contact with Holocaust survivors through my previous work, I was no stranger to the historical facts underlying this novel. However, where Elton’s amazing skill as a writer shines through is in the seemingly innocuous way the story builds tension. By the time the reader is truly aware of the danger the Stengel family is in, they – like millions of their countrymen – are already doomed. I admit that I had not been fully aware of how many years before the actual outbreak of war Jewish people already suffered from the Nazi regime’s relentless discrimination and persecution.

Elton’s book is one of the few I have read who manages to capture the truly terrifying reality of a dictatorship and the power of propaganda to brainwash a country’s entire population without once sounding preachy or text-bookish. Instead, Elton achieves this by subtly introducing new facts impacting on the Stengel family’s life, slowly spinning a web until the reader (like the Stengel family) feels like their back is against the wall with no way out. Having been lucky enough not to experience war in my lifetime, Two Brothers gave me a sense of what true terror and fear for one’s life must be like, trapped in a hostile environment surrounded by hate. We may feel very superior and clever in our time of technology, but recent world events and the inherent qualities of human nature show that even in our time we are far from immune against racial hatred and political brain washing – even on a large scale.

It was interesting to read about Ben Elton’s own family history which inspired this novel. The author’s emotional connection to the story is ever obvious, which makes it all the more powerful. And yet Elton’s humour also shines through, giving the faintest glimmer of hope and redemption even in the direst of circumstances. Between the laughter and the tears, I couldn’t wait for the times I could sit down with this (rather substantial) novel and immerse myself in Otto and Paulus’ life.

The only small gripe I had with the story was the use of very English sounding idioms in the beginning of the novel, which seemed out of place for Berlin in the 1920’s. This may perhaps not be noticeable at all to readers of English-speaking origin, but I found them slightly distracting and not in sync with Elton’s otherwise flawless skill of re-creating the atmosphere of the era.

All in all, Two Brothers is as good as it gets, and deserves a full 5 stars from me. A must-read for everyone interested in WW2 – and very highly recommended to any reader who enjoys a powerful, emotion-driven and well-researched novel based on true historical facts. I loved it!


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