My thanks go out to Sarah, representing publisher Bookouture, for saving me a place on this lovely ‘Books On Tour’ schedule.
I also need to thank the great NetGalley team, for always making life so easy when downloading review copies.
THE COMMANDANT’S DAUGHTER – (Hanni Winter #1)
1933, Berlin. Ten-year-old Hanni Foss stands by her father’s side watching the torchlit procession to celebrate Adolf Hitler as Germany’s new leader. As the lights fade, she knows her safe and happy childhood is about to change forever. Practically overnight, the father she adores becomes unrecognisable, lost to his ruthless ambition to oversee an infamous concentration camp…
Twelve years later. As the Nazi regime crumbles, Hanni hides on the fringes of Berlin society in the small lodging house she’s been living in since running away from her father’s home. In stolen moments, she develops the photographs she took to record the atrocities in the camp – the empty food bowls and hungry eyes – and vows to get some measure of justice for the innocent people she couldn’t help as a child.
But on the day she plans to deliver these damning photographs to the Allies, Hanni comes face to face with her father again. Reiner Foss is now working with the British forces, his past safely hidden behind a new identity, and he makes it clear that he will go to deadly lengths to protect his secret.
In that moment Hanni hatches a dangerous plan to bring her father down, but how far she is willing to go for revenge? And at what cost?
Catherine is originally from the North of England, studied history at Manchester University, and is now living very happily in Glasgow with her husband, their children both having grown up and left home – one of them living conveniently living in Berlin, Catherine’s favourite City and the setting for two of her WWII historical novels.
Following a rather meandering career which has jumped between marketing, teaching and politics (Catherine hastily adds that readers shouldn’t try and join the dots), she has finally managed to become what she always wanted to be, which is an author.
Catherine admits to being a story lover as well as a story writer and nothing fascinates her more than a strong female lead and a quest. She always hopes that is what readers will find when they pick up one of her books.
As well as historical fiction, she write short stories which have been published in magazines including Writers’ Forum, iScot & Myslexia, and have also been placed in competitions, including first prize in the 2019 Fiction 500 Short Story Competition. She blogs on the 22nd of each month as part of The History Girls collective.
If Catherine is not at her desk, you’ll most probably find her in the cinema, or just follow the loud music!
Visit Catherine at her website
Follow Catherine on Twitter
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“Although this is a complete novel in itself, it is also the first in a series of four which will follow the story of Hanni and Freddy as they try to navigate their way through the shadows of World War Two into a more hopeful future. Writing a series is a first for me, but it is proving to be a fascinating experience and I have grown very fond of my two central characters. the continuation of their story will take Hanni and Freddy back to berlin and to Theresienstadt, but there will also be new locations and challenges facing them. I really hope you will join me with them on their journey”
30 JANUARY – 9 FEBRUARY 1933
‘It’s the procession! It’s coming!”
The sound rushed through the open glass doors, rolling round the crowded reception room in a deep-throated roar as if the sea had hurled itself inland. Hannelore drank it in, her heart hammering as a second, steadier thud pounded through the first wave. She closed her eyes, picturing the scene her father had promised – the heads thrown back, the voices swelling, the uniformed ranks marching step by perfect step through the wooded darkness of Tiergarten – and shivered.
‘Can you hear it?’
Hannelore whirled round as she spoke, expecting to see heads turning, eyes as wide with excitement as her own. Not one conversation skipped a beat. She stretched onto her toes and tried again.
‘Isn’t it time to go out onto the balcony? Isn’t it time to watch?’
Nobody stopped talking. Nobody remarked on how delightful, or even how annoying, her enthusiasm was. Nobody took any notice of her or the commotion outside at all. Hannelore’s voice floated away, sucked up into the never-ending swirl of chatter and the clinking of brimming glasses.
What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they racing to the windows?
Their lack of interest made no sense. Why else were they here if not to watch the parade? Her father had said that it would be the most wonderful celebration to ever take place in Berlin.
“Grown-ups are always saying one thing and doing another – it’s not very helpful”
“She didn’t fully know yet how photographs were taken, or how they could be used. She was, however, beginning to learn that they had a value which went beyond the annual family portraits her mother delighted in and she was determined to understand more”
“She knew what home meant to her father and his kind: they used it and homeland like magic talismans, not to describe actual places, but as a shorthand for a concept of blood purity that was sick to its soul”
“Hanni stood up and wiped her eyes. She had to stop hiding from what had to be done for the sake of an easy life. She hadn’t earned that yet”
“Freddy could never know who Hanni Winter really was. That some agonies ran too deep and that, if she told him even a part of it, he would loathe her too – he would look at her and see a black uniform and a backdrop of hatred exactly as Natan had. That there could be nothing therefore between her and Freddy Schlussel but secrets. It was a fact, but it was hard to look into the dark eyes she had captured so beautifully in the photograph and accept it”
“There are people who do dreadful things and there are those who stand by and let them and there’s no difference between the two as far as I’m concerned. Those who know the truth have a responsibility to do the right thing: to denounce the criminal, not to bury their secrets. If they don’t do that – if they don’t allow punishment to be a possibility – then it’s simple: they share in the guilt”
“Over the course of a long and sleepless night with the imprint of his lips still traced on her own, Hanni had come to an inescapable conclusion: there was more pain to be had in hiding from her past than in trying to secure a better future”
“In that moment, she knows that taking pictures is not enough, she has to help these people…”
My heart did sink a little when I read a letter from author Catherine Hokin, featured at the end of the book, in which she confirms that The Commandant’s Daughter is the first book in a planned four part series; as I am notoriously lax at keeping on top of my series reading and I have already invested in so many other series reads, that I’m not sure how I am going to cope. She did, thankfully, add the caveat that all the books would work as stand alone novels, which this one undoubtedly did, although of course, having now worked out where the series is heading I have decided that I very much want to be part of that journey, even though I know that will involve many more tears before it is over!
The story begins in 1933, in Berlin when Hitler has just come to power and where ten-year-old Hannelore Fosse lives with her parents, sister and grandmother. Hannelore’s father, Reiner, as a very zealous recent recruit to the SS, is sent in 1943, to oversee the ‘new town’ of Theresienstadt, a Concentration Camp in all but title, relocating his family with him. There Hannelore, who has become obsessed with photography, sees and hears more than one so young should, although she is remarkably mature and determinedly stoic enough to catalogue the horrendous images and events through her pictures. She is appalled by the huge change in her father, who appears to relish his duties, rather than show any repugnance for them, which puts them very much at odds and irrevocably divides them. When he knows that the game is up and defeat is staring his country in the face, Reiner sends his family back to Berlin, where one devastating event follows another and Hannelore is left alone. When Germany is finally beaten and the concentration camps are liberated, she assumes that Reiner must be either dead or awaiting trial somewhere for the heinous crimes he has committed against humanity.
Fast forward to 1946, in a post-war Berlin, which has recently been carved up by the four allied countries and Hannelore Fosse has become Hanni Winter. She realises that her father has managed to evade capture and along with so many of his fellow SS officers, has reinvented himself as his non-existent younger brother and now works for the Allies, who have picked out those Germans they feel pose least risk, to assist them in the capture of the hardcore SS for trial and to play their part in the rebuilding of a devastated city. Hanni herself, is now a skilled forensics photographer, attached to the police and working with Inspector Freddy Schlussel and his team. They are assigned to solve the case of a recent spate of assassination murders, where all the victims are former ‘whitewashed’ SS officers, who have become ‘respectable’ members of Berlin society. Hanni is still determined to bring her father to justice, although having discovered her whereabouts and made himself known to her, he makes it clear what will happen to her if she tries to turn him over to the authorities. Hanni and Freddy have a growing attraction between them, although with their disparate cultural backgrounds, is there any hope that a mutual understanding can be reached to put the past to rest and move forwards!
Those are just the very bare bones of a bold and daring, well structured, multi-layered storyline; although this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the tense, highly charged and claustrophobic atmosphere, which looms large and hangs like a cloud over both Hanni and Freddy. Author Catherine Hokin has written a wonderfully rendered, mature work of cultural and societal fiction, compassionately written from the heart, unique and unconventional, often disturbing, brutally and heartbreakingly honest; yet desperately compelling, powerful and completely immersive. Fluently seamless, slowly unfolding and evolving, the story is evocative, intensely textured, rich in detail, whilst totally and utterly emotionally draining. The visual depth to the descriptive narrative and dialogue makes this a truly three dimensional reading experience, which offers a perceptive and compelling sense of time and place, albeit a most disturbing, profoundly touching and troubling journey.
Not only can war unite a people against a common enemy, it also has the power to divide. At a family level, this can cause total and overwhelming devastation, but to a nation threatened with its very existence and survival, events of the past can have such a huge and lasting influence over the present, as Hanni the daughter of an SS officer and Freddy a displaced Jew, know to their personal cost. Can their common mutual belief in justice and retribution be enough to bind them together and help them put events of the past to one side. It might, if only they were able to talk to one another, but although Freddy has begun to open up to Hanni, she in turn, is still unable to confide in him the terrible truth about her past, at least not whilst her father still walks the same streets and breathes the same air as her. At times, their individual memories and emotions are so painfully strong and raw, they have the power to silence and paralyse them, rendering them temporarily frozen in space and time, which these days would no doubt be labelled as PTSD. Their relationship is put under further strain when the vigilante murderer is tracked down and arrested, as for different reasons, they are both rather torn about the notion of stopping the murders of those who were so instrumental in ruining their lives and by default putting up barriers between them which might be beyond breaking down. Even I was astounded to learn that both Hanni and Freddy are mistaken about Herr Bayers motives for his selection of specific victims, which in reality are totally sickening and nauseating, even for the strongest of constitutions.
Catherine has developed a cast of well-drawn, multi-faceted characters, who, whether they are on the side of good or bad, are authentically realistic and genuinely believable in the individual roles which have been created for them. All were understandably complex, emotionally starved and vulnerable, with little or no synergy or dynamism between them, which really divided my feelings and emotions right down the middle. Many were raw and passionate, yet still authentic, genuine and believable. Others were unreliable, volatile, manipulative and duplicitous and I’m not sure that I really connected with, invested in, or identified with, any of them totally. In various guises and to differing degrees, they are all broken and damaged people, from a society which has torn itself asunder and has now been further decimated by the machinations of the victors. Hanni and Freddy will need time to rebuild their confidence, their lives, their trust, before there can be any meaningful steps towards reconciliation and a clear path forwards into the future. However Catherine has done an amazing job of giving all her characters a clear voice with which to begin telling their individual stories and I am already anticipating what she might have in store for them in the next step of their journey towards complete emotional freedom.
A complimentary download of this book for review purposes, was made available by Bookouture and supplied by NetGalley
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!