Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Orphan's Tale - Pam Jenoff

Title: The Orphan's Tale
Author: Pam Jenoff
Publisher: Mira Books, February 21, 2017 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: January 5, 2017
Finished: January 5, 2017

From the inside cover:

The Nightingale meets Water for Elephants in this powerful novel of friendship and survival, set in a traveling circus during World War II.

Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep. When Noa discovers boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she steals one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.

Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another - or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.

'Tis the season for 2017 ARCs! I actually received this one right before Christmas and with winter break almost over I decided it was a good time to get lost in a great piece of historical fiction.

After the occupation of her native Holland, Noa is impregnated by a Nazi soldier and disowned by her parents. Hoping that her Aryan colouring will help her child to be adopted by a German family, her baby is taken from her after birth, and Noa immediately regrets the decision. Months later, she encounters a railway car full of Jewish babies, and longing for the son she was forced to surrender, she rescues a baby when the soldiers aren't looking. She is rescued from the cold by members of a travelling circus who agree to take her and the baby in if she is willing to be their new aerialist. Astrid, who is a Jew in hiding at the circus after being abandoned by her SS husband, is ordered to train Noa with a six-week deadline. Astrid initially looks at Noa in disdain due to her age and inexperience, but grows to view the younger woman as a sister after seeing her determination on the trapeze and discovers that baby Theo isn't Noa's brother as she claims. Noa bonds with Astrid, seeing the older woman love and care for her and Theo in a way her own mother could not. As the circus prepares to go on the road into France, Noa and Astrid view this as an opportunity to escape Germany and find sanctuary, but France in 1944 is still under Nazi control, and as SS soldiers visit the circus and things unravel around them, the two women struggle to keep the other (and baby Theo) alive.

I read the first 200 pages in one sitting, this book grabbed my attention and didn't let go. Noa is portrayed very sympathetically, as is Astrid. I particularly enjoyed how the author explored how both women struggle to trust men after being betrayed and disappointed by their prior love interests (the solider for Noa, and Astrid's husband Erich), I think many readers will be able to relate to that. The novel is well-written and the author manages the alternating narration between Noa and Astrid incredibly well, each voice is clearly distinct and there's no confusion about who is speaking when you move from chapter to chapter. The backdrop of the Holocaust will attract many readers just for that, and the author includes an historical note at the end of the novel (as well as a reader's guide, I love when publishers/authors include those). Even I (as someone who claims to be pretty well-versed in that time period) learned something about the true history that inspired the novel, but I feel there are so many facets of WWII history that you can always uncover something new that you had no clue existed.

Read this when it comes out in February, then loan it to all your friends so you can spread the love of this wonderful novel (this is going to be a book club favourite, I can tell). It's well-written, with relatable, sympathetic, and admirable female characters that will stay with you long after you finish the book. This is my first novel by this author and the experience makes me want to look up all her other historical fiction novels (all similarly set in WWII).

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the image focuses on the train since they feature prominently in the novel. The winter setting is foreboding, but calm; it sets the mood nicely.

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