The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer

the things we cannot say.jpgTitle: The Things We Cannot Say

Author: Kelly Rimmer

Genre: Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th February 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 420

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A searing page-turner of family secrets and the legacy of war by the Top 10 bestselling Australian author of BEFORE I LET YOU GO
2019 
Life changed beyond recognition for Alice when her son, Eddie, was born with autism spectrum disorder. She must do everything to support him, but at what cost to her family? When her cherished grandmother is hospitalised, a hidden box of mementoes reveals a tattered photo of a young man, a tiny leather shoe and a letter. Her grandmother begs Alice to return to Poland to see what became of those she held dearest.

WWII Alina and Tomasz are childhood sweethearts. The night before he leaves for college, Tomasz proposes marriage. But when their village falls to the Nazis, Alina doesn’t know if Tomasz is alive or dead.

2019 In Poland, separated from her family, Alice begins to uncover the story her grandmother is so desperate to tell, and discovers a love that bloomed in the winter of 1942. As a painful family history comes to light, will the struggles of the past and present finally reach a heartbreaking resolution?

Inspired by the author’s own family history, The Things We Cannot Say unearths a tragic love story and a family secret whose far-reaching effects will alter lives forever.

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There is always something powerful about novels set in times of war or tragedy – they reveal something about who we really are, and the lengths people will go to so they can protect those they love, their family, their friends, and in Poland during the war, those they might not even know. The Things We Cannot Say is a dual storyline, told from the perspective of two generations – Alina, in the early 1940s, and her granddaughter, Alice, in 2019.

2019 Badge

We meet Alina and Tomasz first, at a wedding in the Soviet Union, and then we slip into 2019, where Alice is with her son Eddie, who has autism, and is doing all she can to support him and her family when her beloved babcia,her grandmother, Hanna, becomes ill and is rushed to hospital. From here, Alice’s journey begins as her routine with Eddie is suddenly her routine is thrown into jeopardy, but when she discovers the app she uses to communicate with Eddie works for Hanna, and is sent on a quest to Poland to uncover Hanna’s past, and the secrets of a family she never knew.

In 1941, Alina and her family watch as the German invasion of Poland, which started in 1939, slowly round up Jews, take over farm houses and turn Polish families out, and send Polish citizens off to work for the Reich in camps. From her farmyards, she can see the black smoke billowing from what he learns later is Auschwitz-Birkenau, the smell unlike any other. She helps her friend, Tomasz, after his father is killed, and her family helps him further, until it becomes too dangerous, and Alina must leave Poland – and never look back.

Alice and Alina alternate on average, one to three chapters at a time, depending on what aspects of the story need attention, and in each perspective, family plays a large role: Alina and her family, and their attempts to defy the Nazis will sacrifice so much for the freedom and safety of some. Whilst in 2019, Alice is grappling with helping Eddie, and being there for her daughter and husband as well. When herbabcia sends her off to Poland, she can only hope that her family won’t implode while she is gone.

Woven throughout, is the love story of Tomasz and Alina, which at first, didn’t feel as obvious as some, and i liked this – I liked that it wasn’t the focus and developed and some things just happened spontaneously. In the time of war for Alina, her family and Tomasz, there are words that cannot be spoken, because of fear, and in the future for Hanna and Eddie, words that cannot physically be spoken – which makes the title very fitting, and shows the different ways that people find to communicate when they cannot physically speak – whatever the reason.

Much World War Two literature focuses on the Holocaust – in this one, it is present, and has an impact on the reader and characters, but it is the story of how one Catholic family is willing to sacrifice everything to help those being discriminated against by people who are brutal and will go at any lengths to achieve their own means as well.

Kelly Rimmer created a very realistic world – I could smell the burning bodies, see the woods, and even though I haven’t been, imagine a post-war and wartime Poland, a country that after the war, was under Soviet Control until 1991, and having visited another country that had been in the Communist Bloc, the Czech Republic, I could imagine the contrast of older buildings, versus the Communist buildings and the more modern ones – a mixture of various times in history and a contrast of the bleak Communist era, and the old, historical buildings, as well as hints of modernity creeping in. I imagine it is similar in Poland.

The power of this story is in the characters, and what they do to protect and care for their families, and because it was inspired by the author’s own family history, it is a very meaningful and personal story – the characters are alive and vibrant, and the world that they inhabit is one that history will never forget, that these people and their families will never forget. There are many events in history we need to remember, many things that should never be forgotten. That is why novels like this are powerful and needed: so we don’t forget the human cost is more than just numbers on a page.

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The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford

good doctor of warsaw.jpgTitle: The Good Doctor of Warsaw

Author: Elisabeth Gifford

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Corvus/Allen and Unwin

Published: 21st February 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Set in the ghettos of wartime Warsaw, this is a sweeping, poignant and heartbreaking tale, based on the true story of one of World War II’s quiet heroes – Dr Janusz Korczak.

‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’

Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.

As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day…

Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.

Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.

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Based on a true story, and the recollections of Misha and Sophia, the protagonists and what they told their family, The Good Doctor of Warsaw retells the story of the Warsaw ghetto, and the orphanage run by Doctor Janusz Korczak. Told mostly from Misha and Sophia’s point of view as they navigate life within the ghetto with each other the orphans and Doctor Korczak, and each other, it is also the story of courage, and the lengths one man went to so he could protect the children of the ghetto in a time of turbulence in war-torn Europe, and a Warsaw that would soon become unrecognisable.  With the ghetto closed off due to claims of disease, starvation begins to set in as the Nazi’s tighten the noose on the ghetto and those within. With meagre supplies being smuggled in from outside the ghetto, Misha and Sophia find themselves separated as they watch everyone they love die, or get marched off to camps in the east, to Treblinka. This is where Doctor Korczak and the children would end up, and where, like many before them, they’d never come home from.

Doctor Korczak’s story is moving and chilling, and his decision to stay with the children, and refusal to abandon his post despite people begging him to save himself is admirable. In a time when he could have taken the easy way out and allowed his Polish and Aryan friends to protect him, he chose to starve and stay with the vulnerable Jewish orphans, and provide a home for them, and a safe place, where they could be loved and listened to.

Elisabeth Gifford’s careful research in Korczak’s life and ideologies on childhood, caring for children, and educating them comes through clearly in the novel, showing the power of love, and respect, where Korczak stood for all children being allowed the same rights and respect, regardless of race, religion, colour, nationality or any other reason someone might use to deny them the rights he believed they deserved. Drawing on Janusz’s journals, and his book, How to Love A Child, and the recollections of Misha and Sophia, Elisabeth Gifford has recreated the hope and horror of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the realisation by many that what was happening was not going to end soon, despite Janusz’s positivity and attempts to keep the children happy and fed, and safe. She has ensured that the gravitas of what happened in the ghetto and during the war is not forgotten, the dangers that Aryan-passing children from the ghetto faced as they found ways to smuggle food from one side to the other, and the hopeless sense of not know if, or when, you or those you cared about might be rounded up and sent off to the camps, a place where you were told you would work. But the fate that awaited them at Treblinka was unforeseen and tragic.

In reading books like this, it reveals the fragility of humanity, and shows what humans are capable of. Janusz sacrificed freedom and life for the children of the orphanage. Elisabeth Gifford has done a fine job recreating this world and story for readers – a story that needs to be told amidst every other fact and report we have from the Holocaust, because it is the human face to these tragedies that should never be forgotten. With novels inspired by true events, the reality of what happened can feel harsher, more eye opening perhaps, but the impact of any accounts and stories will always be significant and thought provoking. The bravery that Doctor Korczak presented, and his care and courage in caring for the children until the end should never be forgotten.

Rooted in one of the darkest moments of human history, it is fascinating, moving, and at times, hard to read and heartbreaking. However, it is also powerful, and a testament to what humans are capable of when they are filled with hatred, but also what they are capable of when they love and accept people as individuals.

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