Book review: People Like Us

Holocaust novel is a fiction too far


People Like Us by Louise Fein (Head of Zeus, £18.99)

The Holocaust was too vastly dehumanising, you would think, to be played with by storytellers. But that hasn’t prevented  a growing number of writers of fiction tackling the subject, often successfully in commercial terms at least. But Holocaust novels carry an enormous responsibility towards history, humanity and sheer tastefulness. Unless they are totally authentic — and well-written — they are an inappropriate form of literature. Sadly, Louise Fein’s People Like Us is an example of this.

Set in 1930s Leipzig, it is “inspired by the author’s own family history” and is the story of an SS officer’s daughter, Hetty Heinrich, who is captivated by Adolf Hitler — she whispers “Happy birthday” fervently to his giant photograph in her bedroom, rather like a David Cassidy fan who kisses his image on a poster before she sleeps. 

But, despite her profound dedication to the Führer, she falls in love with a Jew. And not just any Jew: “I nearly drowned and Walter rescued me; that makes everything different.” 

Does it? Clearly, the publishers appear to think so, as this statement appears in large print on the flyleaf of the book, followed by a breathless introduction to what the publicists clearly imagine is the central conundrum: Hetty’s love is for “blond-haired blue-eyed perfect-in-every-way Walter. The boy who saved her life. A Jew.” 

Where to start to grapple with the wrongness of this appallingly alienating statement — and much else throughout the 520 pages through which the author presses on with the star-crossed love affair?

Once the scales of Hitler adoration have fallen from her eyes, Hetty has a predictably difficult time. Walter escapes to England; she finds she is pregnant, and her plight — which she must conceal from her strict parents — would be anguished enough in a normal setting. But she lives in the shadow of a Buchenwald subcamp on the hills above Leipzig, where dissidents disappear daily, never to return. And then she realises that the house her parents have moved into is stolen from dispossessed Jews. 

In this desperately extreme situation, you can imagine the tension between all this fascist autocracy and her secret love. But the book never really convinces that any of this is happening. Hetty is too dim to appreciate things were wrong from the outset (initially, I thought she was about seven years old, rather than a sexually active teenager) and to notice that neighbours were somehow vanishing. 

The only Jewish people in her life, aside from her conveniently perfect and blond lover, are the predictable doddery old couple, reviled as they walk the streets with their faithful dog until they also disappear, leaving behind the dog, which Hetty cheerfully adopts as a family member in her Nazi household.
Fein’s attempt at a genuinely moving end to People Like Us is undermined by the rest of the book having left us unenlightened and exasperated with its thin story and shallow characters. 

Anne Garvey is a freelance writer and co-editor of Cambridge Critique

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