12 Days of Clink Street Christmas - Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas

Ho ho ho! I'm delighted to be taking part in the 12 Days of Clink Street; to celebrate Christmas, seventeen very different Clink Street authors will be delivering Christmas treats from a variety of genres that will cater to every wish list! Today I have a review of Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas but first here's the front cover and description.

Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max - whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.
But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realised; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?

Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.

Many thanks to the author, Clink Street Publishing, and Rachel Gilbey for inviting me to review Fifteen Words and for sending me the ebook.
I read The Watcher, the sequel to Fifteen Words in October and really enjoyed it so I was delighted to see this first book was featured among the Clink Street Christmas line-up. The story starts with the couple already apart - Max is serving as a doctor in the German army, the war is almost over and the Soviet Army is on the verge of seizing the town of Breslau. Meanwhile, Erika is six months pregnant and is moving in with her in-laws but first she faces a gruelling and dangerous journey across the country. The narrative switches between the two, both the struggles of their current situations and their memories of the past. Max's belief in both his Catholic faith and the Hippocratic Oath means he has always opposed the Nazi regime but Erika is far more conflicted. Brought up as an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, at first she is a keen supporter of many Nazi policies. The pair meet when they are medical students and despite their differences - Erika is also an atheist - they fall in love.
When books are written from differing perspectives, it's always fascinating to see how their memories of events vary, the old adage of there being his truth, her truth and the actual truth somewhere in the middle definitely holds true here. It's also the case that a dual narrative often means I find I prefer one character over another, and in this case I found I warmed far more to Max. After previously meeting him as a PTSD sufferer in The Watcher, seeing how he was driven to that point is heartbreaking. Max is a principled, kind and honourable man and an important reminder that many Germans fought in the war reluctantly and were vehemently opposed to Nazi ideology. Shortly after being posted to the Western Front, Max and his best friend, Edgar have to rescue soldiers under fire as the Germans try to advance on the French defending the Maginot Line. They are promoted to NCOs as a result of their actions but the war has already started changing these gentle men;
'Max and Edgar may have returned from the Western Front with a promotion to NCO for their bravery in the river that day; they may have returned with added tinsel to denote the promotion on their freshly laundered uniforms; they may have smiled as they greeted Erika at Freiburg station, their exteriors all shiny and re-varnished, underneath the rot had already set in.'
I must admit to finding it harder to like Erika; I'm sure this is partly because it's natural for most people to have a fairly visceral reaction to Nazi sympathisers. However, it's important to remember that Erika was indoctrinated from a young age, and with her stifling home life and controlling parents, it was perhaps inevitable that she would be vulnerable to the promises offered by a new regime. Nevertheless, even though I understood this, I still often found her a difficult character; her struggle to forge a new life for herself whilst not even knowing if her husband is still alive is poignant and her need to seek solace with another man is perhaps understandable, even excusable but her behaviour still often seems cold and hard. She is undoubtedly a victim of her past, the moment when she locks her young daughter up is an indicator of that, so I can't condemn her completely but I did find her somewhat arrogant and even quite chilling at times.
Fifteen Words might be the story of Max and Erika but it's also a novel about the different types of power that can shape lives. The power of just fifteen words and the hope they bring is juxtaposed with the destructive power of war and violence. For as much as this is a book about love and perseverance, it's also about how war brutalises people, perhaps best demonstrated by the way Sergeant Volkov justifies his cruel and inhumane treatment of German POWs by recalling the atrocities he witnessed during the war,
"I don't treat people this way," Volkov sneered. "I treat nazis this way. And it is small reparation for the way you have treated us. In your concentration camps. In the villages, raping and pillaging."
I wondered how I'd feel reading these two books out of sequence; it did mean I knew some things were going to happen and it could be argued that meant they lost their shock value. However, the dreadful anticipation made up for that and actually I found it fascinating to read this as a prequel to what I know is to come in The Watcher. Fifteen Words is a beautifully written and touching book, it's necessarily darker and less hopeful than The Watcher and knowing that the Portner family still have much heartbreak to endure is desperately poignant. I don't know if Monika Jephcott Thomas intends to write about them again but this raw and emotional book is one that will stay with me for a long time.

Fifteen Words is published by Clink Street Publishing and can be purchased here. Don't miss the other posts celebrating 12 Days of Clink Street Christmas.

About the Author

Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, north-west Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner Jeff she established the Academy of Play & Child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty per cent of children who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002.