Reviewed by Emma Crowley
It’s 1943 and Hitler’s Germany is a terrifying place to be.
But Magda Ritter’s duty is the most dangerous of all…
Assigned to The Berghof, Hitler’s mountain retreat, she must serve the Reich by becoming the Führer’s ‘Taster’ – a woman who checks his food for poison. Magda can see no way out of this hellish existence until she meets Karl, an SS officer who has formed an underground resistance group within Hitler’s inner circle.
As their forbidden love grows, Magda and Karl see an opportunity to stop the atrocities of the madman leading their country. But in doing so, they risk their lives, their families and, above all, a love unlike either of them have ever known…
Many thanks to Avon Books UK via NetGalley for my copy of Her Hidden Life to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
At the end of Her Hidden Life, previously published as The Taster, by V.S Alexander, there is a set of questions for discussion one of them being 'At the end has the novel given you a new perspective on the war?' In answer to that question yes this riveting and quite frankly at times very unsettling novel has opened my eyes to a whole new perspective regarding World War Two. I love reading historical fiction and as I quickly glanced through the blurb I thought why not give this one a go. Never have I read a book in the historical fiction genre that focuses on anything to do with Hitler. As a reader I haven't gotten so deep into the mindset and the goings on of the German side during the war and to be honest previous to reading this story I'm not quite sure I ever wanted to.
Reading through this book, despite it being brilliantly written, with impeccable research, left me open mouthed at times, speechless and horrified and for the first half there was this niggling feeling that I shouldn't be reading this. It sounds silly to say but it felt almost like a betrayal that I was reading something from the opposing viewpoint and it felt wrong having been so accustomed to reading of the Allies during the war or easy enough to read wartime family sagas which I love to read. It's no fault of the book and the way it was written at all rather I think I just took a huge step out of my comfort zone in relation to books focusing on World War Two. At times I was feeling sympathy for Magda our main female protagonist and the opposing side and I'm not sure how comfortable I was with feeling this way given how strong a stance I and many others have in relation to the actions of the Germans during World War Two.
Her Hidden Life opens as Magda Ritter sits in her home in Berlin in 2013, she is looking back on her life, one in which many would scarcely believe what happened to her during World War Two. Magda was one of 15 women who tasted all food before it was sent to Hitler for consumption. This was a perilous job as one never knew if a meal had been laced with poison and therefore that woman's time would be up. Hitler believed in providence - his divine right to rule as he saw fit. He thought of himself as invincible, above everybody else and through the war he would achieve ultimate power and control. So how did Magda end up in the Berghof and the Wolf's Lair testing food and living amongst the most evil man in history?
As Magda recollects her life the reader is taken on a journey back in time and what one reads one scarcely can believe was ongoing while hundreds of thousands of people fought in the war or were being killed in concentration camps. Life inhabiting Hitler's dens was almost like existing in a parallel universe where things continued as normal whilst people starved and were disposed of. Magda's parents had insisted she evacuate out of Berlin to her Aunt and Uncle. I did find it interesting to read of how the capital city was coping with air raids and the fighting. One forgets that there were normal, innocent people suffering in the city who did not want any of this to happen.
When Magda arrives at her relations house she is told she must find work to contribute during these harsh times. Through one thing and another, even though she is not a party member, she enters the world of Hitler on a more personal level than she would ever have wished for. She is exposed to a world that the general German population have no clue about. Hitler lives in the lap of luxury while others starve. Through the endless propaganda pushed into the psyche of the German public, the German native on the street has no idea that in 1943 the tide of the war is slowly beginning to turn in the Allies favour nor do they know of the unspeakable atrocities being committed in the death camps. Hitler has so much power and influence that even the people who live at his various dens and camps are in fear of stepping out of pace for fear of repercussions.
Magda was taken out of her home and to me very much thrown to the lions, I couldn't imagine having to do the job she was given even though Cook was such a support to her. Magda lives on a knife edge and has to grow up very quickly. Even though I detested everything that was going on the reader does have to feel sympathy for what Magda endures but also admiration for the way in which she conducts herself at all times. She becomes watchful and wary of everything. No one can be trusted but love does come calling at her door in the form of Captain Karl Weber. A connection is quickly established between the pair and this felt so real and genuine, that amidst the horrors and brutality of the war that people could fall in love. But this love would never be simple and always tested and as Magda discovers Karl is part of a much bigger operation is she willing to sacrifice everything for the love she holds deep in her heart. I won't allude any more to what said operation was suffice to say it was very interesting and again another eye opener in this book. The course of the events would have rapidly changed if the operation had been successfully accomplished.
Throughout Magda showed her metal, her true courage and conviction. Brave is not a word to describe all the sacrifices she made and it was her love for her parents and for Karl that would hopefully see her through. It was brilliant to see that life for Magda wasn't a bed of roses once employed by Hitler but also through her eyes we are given an insight into what went on behind the scenes. Eva Braun makes several appearances and Magda does get to interact with her. But to be honest she came across as if living in an entirely different world to everybody else where she believed the war wasn't happening at all and once things had been sorted she would lead an idyllic life with Hitler and her dogs. It's scary how one man could exert so much influence through his insanity. There are innumerable feelings that arise whilst reading through this book and the readers perceptive on the war does change but then it sways back and forth over and over. One thing is for sure evil needed to be eradicated as there was a madman driving the world full force into untold horrors and destruction.
Without doubt Her Hidden Life was a deeply fascinating read that makes you question all your opinions with regard to the war that changed the world forever. I don't think mine changed radically instead I gained an even deeper understanding. I wouldn't use the word appreciation in any way shape or form because I don't feel that way in any sense of the word. But the author has provided plenty of food for thought and written about an aspect of the war as in being a taster for Hitler that I would never even have thought existed. She has given those women a voice through Magda. It must have been incredibly difficult to write this book in terms of providing a balanced, unbiased viewpoint and the fact that V.S Alexander did pull this off and allowed the reader to form their own opinions and decisions is testament to the excellent, exciting, riveting writing and plot lines throughout.
There was a very good twist towards the end that I desperately wanted but I did feel it would not come to fruition but the way it was subtly and aptly slipped in was just marvellous. Magda is a character who the reader definitely feels they have journeyed with through thick and thin, through the difficult, challenging times. The bad far out way the good but in this book she was a young girl transformed into a woman of resilience, determination. She became astute and cottoned on to a way which would hopefully see her emerge stronger and victorious on the other side. I am so glad the author choose to write this book given the delicate tough nature of the subject matter but she did pull it off.
Her Hidden Life is an ideal choice for a book club as there are endless questions that will surface as you read through this story and are taken in by Magda and the life changing events she experiences. For certain, I am now more than keen to see where the author will venture next as she has now been added to my list of go to historical fiction authors.