If you’re looking for an historical epic to replace your need to watch The Sound of Music on repeat, this might be your poison. Annette Young follows up her last historical book about childhood with a riveting tome about becoming an adult, marriage, and how hatred and grudges can hold a heart back from being able to love.
This book is told from the perspective of Phoebe Raye, one of the friendship quartet from A Distant Prospect. Though many of the characters from her first book make an appearance here, no knowledge of prior events is required to understand and enjoy the story.
Phoebe’s story starts in a very Jane Eyre-like tone, as she herself admits. Phoebe’s idyllic childhood is shattered when her mother is found murdered. Shortly afterwards her father goes insane trying to find his wife’s killer. Left to fend for herself, Phoebe nurses a grudge that she carries with her into adulthood and even across the ocean. Once grown, she journeys to Austria where her half-Chinese, half-white father was granted citizenship. She takes up residence in his old home and begins to build a community for herself from her father’s old acquaintances. Many of these are members of the Austrian nobility. However, since the Emperor was deposed and the nobility abolished after WWII, they have been reduced to upper-middle class plebeians searching for their place in this new world.
Of course, trouble is brewing in neighboring Germany and Phoebe herself is friends with some nascent Nazis; but it’s not a threat that anyone in their right mind is taking seriously at the moment. Phoebe herself has plenty of other things to think about, like the compassionate and gentle Turkish trader and the passionate, yet detached fallen Baron who wins her heart. At the same time, she keeps getting distracted from love by her continuing quest to hunt down her mother’s killer who, she believes, is hiding somewhere in Europe.
When Nazi Germany does finally invade Austria, Phoebe remains to help her Jewish friends emigrate to Australia and dodges questions about her ancestry. Phoebe is half white, a quarter Chinese and a quarter Jewish and though can sometimes pass for full white, she has dealt with innocent & curious questions before, questions that are growing increasingly sinister. This is part one of a series that will, I assume, track Phoebe throughout Europe as WWII heats up.
There are a lot of thought-provoking elements in this story. For one, it is the first story I’ve read set around WWII with a multi-racial protagonist and I found the new perspective refreshing. I didn’t know for example that the Nazis had special rules for a person depending whether they were a quarter or a half Jewish. I imagine her Asian ancestry might come into play when the Pacific theater heats up.
This book also brought to light an element of Catholic history that I, in my Protestant education, was unaware of. Many of the Austrian elite Phoebe interacts with saw their lost empire as the last vestige of the Holy Roman Catholic Empire; so all of Hitler’s rhetoric about reclaiming that empires rings even darker and more twisted in light of that context.
Mercy promises to be a running theme in the series. Kerem, her Turkish suitor, though a nominal Muslim, tries to temper her vengeful inclinations as he helps her to smuggle her Jewish friends from Nazi-occupied Austria.
“Phoebe,” he tells her, “the scales of justice have two arms […] To pursue [your] case […] at the expense of your own happiness would tip the balance too far against yourself. You can love and still see justice done. In fact, love and you are bound to find the justice you crave.”
In contrast, her other suitor, Hubie is an extremely principled and traditional Catholic who pines for the days of the Holy Roman Empire. His influence is often good and he does more than almost anyone to bring Phoebe back to a faith she has felt disconnected from ever since the rupture of her family. At the same time, he can be overly harsh and judgmental. He dismisses Phoebe’s attempts to help Jewish families emigrate by telling her that doing so does nothing to fix the heart of the problem. By the end of the book there are hints that he has developed his own thirst for revenge against the powers that have taken his country.
This was my first Annette Young book and I am already impatient to read the sequel and find out who survives, who gets revenge, and if any of the characters will find that vengeance worth it or if it will destroy any chance for love.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: Mercy, Compassion, Forgiveness, Catholic History, WWII, WWI, Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Germany, Australia, Music, Music History, Conversion, Multi-Racial Identity,
Author’s Worldview: Catholic
Year Published: 2019