Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The author of this novel, Jenny Lecoat, is a veteran writer. Yet, The Viennese Girl (Hedy’s War), is her debut novel. Since the 1990s, Jenny Lecoat has been a professional screen writer in various formats. Prior to this time, she made a name for herself as one of the first female stand-up comics in the UK. She was also involved in the media as an actress, TV and radio presenter and free-lance feature writer. She grew up in Jersey, Channel Islands and was aware of the history concerning her family’s life there during World War 2. This history was highlighted in her screenplay, Another Mother’s Son, in 2017.
With the 75th anniversary of Jersey’s liberation from German occupation coming up in 2020, and the posthumous awarding of the Yad Vashem award, in 2016, to one of its residents, Jenny Lecoat felt compelled to delve once more into this period of history while at the same time exploring her ability to venture into a new genre.
To create this work, the author used the documented information available on Hedwig Bercu-Goldberg, a young Jewish woman who had found refuge on the island only to find herself once again in danger when it came under a five-year German occupation during World War 2. The other main characters in her novel, Kurt, Dorothea, Anton and a couple of local politicians were all real people and played a major role in keeping Hedy safe during this time. As with all historical fiction, the author glued this information together with her own perceptions of how such a story would have played out.
‘How easy it was to access hate…How close to the surface that putrid emotion always floated, waiting for a target, biding its time to find a focus and bloom like a poisonous algae’ (264). This emotion was never more prominent than in war time, especially when directed at the Jews, even on an isolated island. Paranoia appeared to be the default mood of the German authorities (168). Yet, during times like this, there will be members of different nationalities fighting on both sides with the common feeling that ‘not one bugger actually wanted to be there’ (257). The author has cleverly interwoven these themes into her story.
This is an extraordinary story of courage and defiance on the behalf of individuals from both sides of the conflict, and an island community under siege. It is also a story about dependency, trust, deprivation and values of human decency.
The author’s intimate knowledge of the island adds authenticity to her descriptions of locations, the erection of German fortifications and the resourcefulness of the residents during their time of deprivation. Through all of these depressing times there is some light relief. I could clearly picture the incident of Kurt’s discomfort with the spider crab (213). Another memorable and somewhat dramatic incident involved a pig (194-198).
This is a story that is built on emotion – love, fear, depression. There are two main love stories, both seemingly destined for disaster. Hedy, a Jew, falls in love with a German officer, Kurt; Dorothea, an island girl, loves and marries an Austrian man on the island, Anton, who is drafted by the Germans to fight for them. The fear of discovery is ever present and there are times when Hedy wonders whether it was fair to embroil those around her. ‘Hedy felt sick…A cold toxicity seemed to be building in her veins. The moment had finally come. She had ceased to be a person; she was now a problem, a living liability to be discussed and hidden away like an illegal wireless or pistol’ (216).
I found the character of Dorothea to be an interesting one. (She was to be the recipient of the award). Hedy, at first, cannot understand how her only friend, Anton, can fall in love with an ‘overgrown, delusional kid’ (184) who was so besotted with movie stars. However, when Anton leaves the island, the lives of these two women will become dependently entwined. Hedy soon learns that Dorothea has a deep inner strength. Her love for Anton was not accepted by the island community and they had ‘spat this woman out as trash’ (155) yet she was prepared to defend them. She puts herself in great danger by hiding Hedy.
Eventually the war ends and leaves the main characters with new dilemmas. ‘How tragic, (Kurt) thought, to have survived this long, to have kept alive the woman he loved, only to be snatched from the earth now, when happiness was finally possible. But he felt no fear or self-pity, just an eerie calmness’ (241).
I found Jenny Lecoat’s debut novel, The Viennese Girl, to be a captivating story, probably all the more so because it was based on events that really happened.
by Jenny Lecoat