Friday 8 September 2017

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Serpent's Egg by J.J. Toner

Amazon UK £3.19 £12.99
Amazon US $4.11 $14.99
Amazon CA  $20.06

Espionage / Family drama

Max and Anna are in love and want to get married. But this is Germany, 1938. Their union is against Nazi laws, as Anna is part-Jewish. A Gestapo officer agrees to authorize the marriage, but only if Max infiltrates and betrays a Marxist resistance cell, the Red Orchestra. This is not an assignment that Max can refuse. If he succeeds, Anna will get the wedding she longs for, but many brave resistance fighters will die…”

This is a novel worth reading for it offers insight into Hitler’s Germany from a German perspective. The plot is intricate and very well handled in a modern thriller (Lee Child-like) style. The story follows a year in the life of Max-Christian and Anna, a perfectly ordinary couple who want to get married in pre-World War II Berlin. Max is a clerk, Anna works in a department store, there is no opposition from parents and they are financially secure, but the requisite marriage licence is unobtainable because one of Anna’s grandparents had Jewish blood. Max’s attempts to obtain the licence lead him into very deep waters: firstly with the Communist ‘Red Orchestra’ spreading anti-Nazi propaganda then with Hitler’s men who demand he supply them with information about the Communists. It is no spoiler to say that Max becomes a humble double-agent, but it would ruin the story to say how. 

This novel conveys the pressures and tensions of the late 1930s in Berlin extremely well and we meet various real ‘players’ from the period as J.J. Toner weaves real events and people into his narrative. After an excellent opening, however, the novel becomes rather one-paced. Although I feared for the young couple it became increasingly difficult to empathise with them because their characters remain undeveloped. Almost no back-story explains their choices and actions, and Anna is presented as selfish and petty until the final section where she agrees to help a Jewish family, meaning this reader began to lose interest in her early on. Secondary and minor characters tend to speak in the same manner, with the exception of Max’s mother, whose strange behaviour was an ironic touch of normality. Characters also constantly address each other by name, which is something we rarely do in conversation and must have been downright unwise given the clandestine and dangerous nature of what they were telling each other.

The author sets up scenes well as Max reluctantly goes about his intelligence-gathering, but terrific opportunities to build tension in key moments, such as when he is first challenged to produce false papers in the guise of a pastor while on a ‘run’ to Belgium, are lost. An SS officer pushes his way into their home and rapes Anna, but the author only tells us what happens and Anna’s feelings are conspicuously absent. In this regard, while the writer’s chosen style conveys what is happening among decision-makers in London very well, it fails to relay the tensions and constant fear implicit in trying to live a normal life when very abnormal things are happening, when loyalties are so tested and relationships so fragile. The text, however, is faultless and the proofreader is to be commended.

Ultimately, like the curate’s egg, this book is very good in parts: a story well worth reading and an author to look out for.

© J.G. Harlond
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