People Like Us is an unforgettably powerful story of love, hope and humanity surviving in spite of the very worst kind of hatred. What sets this book apart is that it’s narrated through the eyes of a teenage Nazi; a girl I despised … and then, unexpectedly found myself wanting to protect.
historical fiction | WWII | romance
‘I nearly drowned and Walter rescued me. That changes everything.’
Leipzig, 1930s Germany
Hetty Heinrich is a perfect German child. Her father is an SS officer, her brother in the Luftwaffe, herself a member of the BDM. She believes resolutely in her country, and the man who runs it.
Until Walter changes everything. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, perfect in every way Walter. The boy who saved her life. A Jew.
Anti-semitism is growing by the day, and neighbours, friends and family members are turning on one another. As Hetty falls deeper in love with a man who is against all she has been taught, she begins to fight against her country, her family and herself. Hetty will have to risk everything to save Walter, even if it means sacrificing herself…
Perfect for fans of The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Book Thief.
Author – Louise Fein | Published by Head of Zeus in May 2020 | 417 Pages (kindle)
“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.
The book opens with this portentous quote by Winston Churchill, and then proceeds to demonstrate, with chilling clarity, exactly how costly such mistakes have been. Two key themes command your attention from the very outset: love, and hatred. Hatred in the form of the anti-semitism and the holocaust, and love in the form of a blossoming romance between a German girl and a Jewish boy.
Spanning a ten year period, People Like Us is a love story set in Leipzig during the early years of Hitler’s rise to power. So far, so familiar. But what sets this book apart is that the story is recounted through the eyes of a teenage girl … a Nazi teenage girl. That, and the fact the author chose to “climb inside the head of a Nazi” in order to bring the most powerful message to the book she wanted to write. This decision is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the author is Jewish, and her family’s history inspired her writing.
People Like Us centres around the Heinrich family; Hetty and her older brother Karl, and their parents Franz and Hélène. When we first meet the family in the summer of 1929, Hetty and Karl are carefree youngsters, and the two of them are practically inseparable from each other, as well as from Karl’s best friend, Walter. Their father is a well-connected man, running the Leipziger newspaper, and rising through the ranks of the SS. Karl and Hetty are being raised as ‘good German children’, with Karl destined for the Luftwaffe, and Hetty to become the compliant wife of a German officer.
As the book progresses, the character focus shifts a little, allowing Erna, Walter and Tomas onto centre stage, alongside Hetty. These three characters each serve to push Hetty’s character from one I loathed into one I adored. Erna, with bravery and solidarity. Walter, with love and hope. Tomas, with pity and shame. Hetty’s enlightenment and political awakening is told with tenderness and understanding, perfectly silhouetted against Tomas’s own descent into a pernicious and cruel mindset.
The warmth and optimism of Hetty and Walter’s unfolding love story serves to offset the malign and inexorable horror of the period this book is set in. Their secret meetings are both joyous and poignant, made all the more so for the reader’s inescapable knowledge of the fate awaiting young Jewish men at this time. The sense of risk is palpable, and yet the couple contrive to spend as much time together as they can, making for some perilous but intoxicating encounters. But, whilst Hetty may be thinking more independently, her freedom to follow her heart is utterly denied; by the dictatorship, by her parents, and by a boy who was once her own childhood friend.
The research carried out by the author is unmistakable, peppering the book with details and facts that serve to both appal us and enhance the credibility of the story we’re reading. This technique was used to dazzling effect during an early chapter where the family attend an award ceremony in Augustusplatz … the crowds of German citizens filling the streets and squares chanting ‘Sieg Heil’ again and again, soldiers marching, Swastika flags billowing … that jittery old black and white footage we’ve all seen at one time or another was suddenly, vivid in my mind’s eye. And there, in the heart of the crowd, is young Hetty and her mother, watching on with pride whilst Karl is initiated into the Hitler Youth. The effect is overwhelming, horrifying and yet utterly hypnotic … not for the scene being described, but for the masterly invocation of my tv-documentary recollections to transport me so wholly into the book.
Lousie Fein has composed a fiction-within-a-truth where every single character is continually developed throughout the book to such a degree that they all, without exception, incited a very real reader relationship – no matter how naive, brash, cruel or manipulative their nature. There’s a significant ratcheting up of the tension – and the cruelty – in the second half of the book: whilst there are passages and events in the first half of the book that were utterly shocking, it’s towards the latter chapters where the emotional provocation becomes all-consuming. I was unable to tear my eyes away as the book closed-in on its unforgettable conclusion, and the bitter-sweet epilogue (which takes place in London in 1995) only heightened my sense of outrage and injustice.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, I hugely enjoyed this book, and devoured every aspect of the story it told. It’s one of those books that I’ll be thinking about, and talking about, for a long time to come. Like most of my favourite books, it didn’t end when the story ended … Louise has included a few pages of author’s notes that I would urge you to read; they are as important and thought-provoking as the fictional story, and they end with the following, powerful statement:
“I hope that readers will also mull on the precariousness of the freedoms and rights we take so much for granted in our own times. And above all, I want to show that the lessons of our past must never be forgotten.”
Louise Fein was born and brought up in London. She harboured a secret love of writing from a young age, and has always preferred to live in her imagination rather than the real world. After a law degree, she worked in Hong Kong and Australia, and enjoyed travelling the world before settling down to a career in law and then in banking.She finally gave into the urge to write, taking an MA in creative writing, and embarking on her first novel, inspired by the experience of her father’s family, who escaped from the Nazis and came to England as refugees in the 1930’s.Louise has recently moved out of London to the Surrey countryside with her husband, three children and small dog. Despite the mud, lack of street lights and the wildlife who like to make an occasional appearance in the house, she is embracing country living. And it’s just a short train ride to London whenever she needs a cultural fix. People Like Us is inspired by her family history, and by the alarming parallels she sees between the early 30s and today. Louise Fein is currently working on her second novel.