Reviewed by Emma Crowley
In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.
Passing through the woods is a German circus – a troupe of waifs and strays, led by the infamous Herr Neuroff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze – under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.
Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another…or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.
Pam Jenoff may have written several novels in recent years but it was only in the later months of 2016 that I discovered her writing and quickly added her to my list of go-to historical fiction authors. Pam's books are different to the usual World War Two reads of which I have read so many as she takes a snapshot in time or a certain element that has not been explored previously and turns it into such a wonderful story. I will admit her last book The Last Embrace although good wasn't my favourite of hers but this new read The Orphan's Tale was simply superb from beginning to end. I found it difficult to leave the book out of my hands once I had started reading. Even now several days after I have finished this book it is still with me, the storyline and characters rushing around in my head. In a way I am haunted by it and by what I have read and it deeply affected me as I was reading and it still does. The writing, setting, plot and characters were quite simply amazing and the overwhelming sense of desperation and trouble just build and build to a magnificent conclusion. One would think what story could be possibly be told based around the war considering so much has previously been written? Well Pam Jenoff has brought a unique aspect of the war to life in a new refreshing yet hauntingly sad way and I loved every minute of this brilliant read.
The story opens with a brief prologue of an old woman arriving in Paris. This woman is 90 and has escaped from a nursing home to visit an exhibition based on a circus during World War Two. Even from the few pages the reader can sense the woman is unsettled and looking for some resolution or some conclusion. Yet to what we do not know. Stepping into the museum and looking at the exhibit brings her back in time and stirs up many memories and in doing so the reader is instantly sucked into a story full of mystery, tension, unease, unrest and betrayal. Yet as we make our way through the story love, friendship and support do make themselves known in the most subtle and beautiful of ways.
Once the story started proper, after reading the curious prologue, the feeling of waiting for something to happen either good or bad pervaded the whole way throughout and only heightened the feelings of unrest the characters were feeling. The first few chapters were extremely powerful with such a shocking scene that I wondered how on earth the author could have written it without tears streaming down her face? It was truly repulsive. What struck me regarding this scene was that it probably wasn't made up at all that something similar to this did happen and probably on a regular basis. It was very upsetting to read but was a crucial scene that needed to be there as it played a pivotal role in setting up what was to come and to help form a character's storyline, her passion and shaped her to be the person she was throughout. It would also explain how she acted in certain situations. This scene was forever in the back of my mind throughout the story and although it happened very early on it's affects were forever felt.
The two main characters are female and not at one stage was I drawn to one over the other. I was eager to read the story from both their viewpoints and loved how more or less alternative chapters gave their take on the predicament they find themselves in. They were individually strong yet when needed to be one or the other stood up for their friend. This didn't happen overnight or without conflict. They each had their flaws and it highlighted how times were tough, nothing was ever easy yet friendships and even love can form slowly but surely.
In Germany in 1944 Noa has been kicked out by her family for falling pregnant. She has been given no chance to explain herself or no support from her very disappointed parents. When we next meet her she is working as a cleaner in a tiny train station and sleeping in nothing more than a cupboard. It is winter and the height of the war and she struggling to keep going day by day. Of the baby there is no mention but as we read through the chapters the back-story is filled in so aptly that I really felt and understood what shaped Noa and why she did what she did. A shocking incident leads to Noa wandering around in the woods where she collapses and is found by members of a circus. Noa comes close to death but is nursed back to health and baby 'Theo' too.
Noa is clearly lost in terms of what she should do but the Neuhoff circus will offer sanctuary and protection in these fierce dangerous times. If she is discovered there is no telling what could happen. Noa is given the chance to stay in return for performing in the circus with aerialist Astrid. She has no idea what is involved but knows for the sake of herself and baby Theo she must do what is asked of her. I thought Noa was so brave and fearless and put Theo ahead of herself at all times. She knew if the Germans discovered what had occurred that no good would come of it. For someone who had never been involved in the circus before she was going to give it her all and she wanted to prove love was so strong and important. I don't think she gambled on Astrid being so strict and firm yet I suppose Astrid in her own way just like Noa had a past she wanted kept secret and maybe that would be the thing that may eventually unite them.
Astrid has the circus in her blood and was a born performer. She finds herself returning to the winter quarters of her family circus only to find it lies empty and her family has disappeared. I found her back story very intriguing and surprising that such a thing would have happened but then again I suppose love is a very powerful thing. Despite a fierce rivalry between her family and the Neuhoff's she braves it and approaches Herr Neuhoff. The kind man he is he takes in Astrid, and similar to Noa, Astrid's past story is revealed but to say anything would give away to much as to why she to lives in fear of discovery.
Although the war is raging on it never made its self fully known to the performers on a huge scale accept when German police made some appearances. I was glad the focus was allowed to be on the circus and Noa and Astrid as they battle through a myriad of emotions and secrets as they embark upon training that must be successful within a matter of weeks. Astrid was a stern task master and she gave absolutely nothing away. She had built up a very strong front and demeanour and she held it in place and rarely if ever showed her vulnerability. Yet as outside forces begin to encroach upon the bubble created within the circus Astrid and Noa find they must put their trust and faith in each other in order to survive and hopefully emerge stronger out the other side. I enjoyed (I suppose enjoy is a strange word to use in this case) the fact that it wasn't all a bed of roses for our two main female protagonists. That they didn't instantly fall into a deep friendship where they could trust each other implicitly. Just like trust had to be built up on the high wires of the circus tent so did this have to emerge within their tentative friendship.
The Orphan's Tale really was a magnificent book that I won't forget in a hurry. The tangled lines of the story all started to weave themselves together in the most surprising and dramatic of ways. In fact so powerful were they I believe the big screen would do the later scenes great justice and in fact the entire book is made for a movie to be filmed. I cared deeply about the characters and the outcome yet never knew what it would be. How would it tie back to the prologue and would there be a happy ending? Well the ending for me fitted the book perfectly and I don't think any other ending could have been written.
Throughout the story there was such an assured pace with rising tensions and development of friendships with a few crafty twists thrown in that made you want to read this book in one sitting if possible. I relished every minute of this incredibly crafted story that took me on such an exhilarating journey full of emotions and yet it was empowering in its own unique way. The Orphan's Tale provides the reader with everything you could want from a book and more and with such depth to all aspects of the story I wouldn't hesitate in recommending you buy this. It will be one that may very well feature in my top reads for 2017 come the end of the year.
Many thanks to Midas P.R for my copy of The Orphan's Tale to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.