One of the most important things to me when I read a novel is believability. Sometimes it happens that one incident in a novel makes me start to question its believability, and then I start seeing other dodgy things in the plot and soon I find that I have lost most of my interest in the story.
This novel takes place in Nazi Germany. It begins with two separate storylines that later join. One follows Noa, a Dutch girl who is kicked out of her home by her father when he discovers she is pregnant, after having a secret affair with a German soldier.
Alone with nowhere to go, she ends up in Germany, where, because she has strong Aryan features, is able to enter an institution set up to care for pregnant girls to produce Aryan babies for the Third Reich. Unfortunately for Noa, when her baby is born, it has dark features and is confiscated and she is forced to leave, again with nowhere to go.
She finds a job doing custodial work in a lonely train station at Darmstadt, where the train cars that are used to ferry Jews to the camps, are parked. One winter’s day, she follows a sound and discovers an abandoned boxcar full of dead and dying babies. Still personally traumatized from losing her own boy, she rescues one of the living infants from the boxcar and escapes into a snowy forest. There she struggles, baby in arms, until exhausted, she passes out and collapses.
The other plot line has to do with Astride, a Jewish German woman who was married to an SS officer, until he forced her out of their home because of fear of his job and Nazi retribution. Before her marriage she had been a trapeze artist in her family-owned circus. With nowhere to go she returns to her family’s circus wintering home, only to discover her family has disappeared without a trace.
She is offered a job as a trapeze artist by a rival circus owner who knows she is a Jew, but also knows how well she performs. It is at the circus headquarters that she meets Noa, who has been discovered in the forest with the infant. The circus owner upon seeing the found girl and child, suggests Noa be trained on the trapeze, because they needed another performer. Astrid is very opposed to this, because Noa has neither the build or past experience for the dangerous job.
It was this part of the book stretched creditably. It seemed ridiculous to me that a circus owner, finding a down-and-out woman and an infant in the woods, would immediately offer her a job as an aerialist, without even knowing if she was in good health or afraid of heights.
Noa does accept the job and challenge and is trained by skeptical Astride on the trapeze. Noa fights her fear and eventually is able to fly from her trapeze into the hands of Astrid on another. As they slowly open up about their past lives to each other, their bond grows. Both have been kicked out of secure situations in the past without warning, and both have reasons to fear the Nazis, Astrid, because she is a Jew, and Noa, because she had rescued a Jewish baby.
The circus begins its tour of Germany and Vichy France with the two women front and center in the show, which puts both of women in severe danger from Nazis and informers, but they remain faithful to the circus despite their danger. Amid those dangers there are love interests for the two women.
I found the first third of this book interesting, but after that things increasingly lost credibility for me. The antagonism between the two main characters seemed forced and out of place, and I felt they were added to sustain drama and to just lengthen the story.
In the life and death situation of Jews trying to keep a low profile in Nazi Germany, characters kept making stupid choices that endangered themselves and others. Their behavior didn’t seem rational considering the circumstances. Again, it seemed these things were just added to build suspense, which is alright in a novel, but in this case, it just seemed like there were just too many irrational acts, that I didn’t find credible.
I did stick it out to the end of the novel and although I no longer felt much connection to the characters, the epilogue did tie things together and fill in the blanks of the hard to swallow story. It wasn’t the best historical fiction I have ever read.