Reviewed by Emma Crowley
When the Nazis march onto the cobbled streets of Colmar on November 1st 1940, Josef, a Jewish violin maker, gathers his wife and daughters closely to him and tells them everything will be alright.
But one year later, three sharp knocks on the door at midnight turn his seventeen year old daughter Sarah’s world upside down. As the oldest child, Sarah must be the first to leave her family, to make her escape in a perilous journey across France via Paris to Poitiers. And she must hide who she is and take a new name for her own safety. For now, bilingual Sarah is no longer a French Jew but a German girl.
As she bids farewell to her beloved father and family, Sarah has hope, against all odds, that she will see them again when the war is over. But, travelling through the mountains she finds herself in terrible danger and meets Ralf, a German deserter, who risks his own life to save her.
Ralf and Sarah continue their journey together, keeping their identities secret at all cost. But when Ralf is captured, will Sarah pay the ultimate price for sharing who she really is?
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Violin Maker's Daughter to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Sharon Maas takes us back to the town of Colmar in the Alsace region of France which has now been annexed and is in total control of the Germans during World War Two. This was the setting for her previous novel The Soldier's Girl and it was great two to see one or two characters from that book make a reappearance in this new book The Violin Maker's Daughter although be it on a more secondary level. It is 1943 and the Mayer family - father Josef, mother Leah and their five daughters Sarah, Amelie, Therese, Mannion and the youngest Sofie have been living the quietest life possible. They try to stay under the radar away from the eyes of the Germans who occupy the town and who have transformed the way of live for the residents of Colmar.
Colmar has undergone radical changes with street names being changed, people forced to speak German and even having their own names changed to more suitable German names. Any Jewish residents were rounded up and taken away from the town but as the Mayer family are not practising Jews but rather Jewish in heritage Josef did not sign any forms. Instead the family kept a very low profile trying to get by with very little as Josef's shop where he makes instruments needless to say is not very much in demand during the war years. But everything is about to change, someone has exposed their heritage and the time has come for some big decisions.
Jews were seen as polluting German society and if the Mayer family could not prove their German heritage within five days they would be taken away and brought to the camps where so many have gone but never been heard from since. It is decided with help from the French resistance that the family will flee Colmar in the hopes of eventually reaching their Uncle in America. Sarah aged 17 is to go first with two sisters following and then the parents with the remaining two daughters. It is a perilous journey which many have undertaken before them but the family cannot hope to stay in Colmar without retribution for failing to produce the correct documentation. Sarah is more than reluctant to leave her family behind and she rallies against her parents wishes. But she is given no option and soon she finds herself traversing the mountains of the region in order to make her way to Poitiers where eventually all the family members will meet up to continue their onward journey.
Right from the outset Sarah is a character who is very difficult to warm to and the more I read through the first half of the book the more she really frustrated me. I began to think maybe this was the way she was meant to be written and that the reader is being urged to feel this way because it's only as we move into the later half of the book that I began to feel any admiration for her and her eventual transformation she underwent was one which was worthwhile and certainly validated everything that she had gone through. Sarah is so naive and innocent and she doesn't realise, as she is taken to various hideouts and brought through forests and areas swarming with German troops, that really so many people are putting their lives in danger just to get her and her family to safety. Hundreds of people did this throughout the war because they felt the injustice being meted out to Jewish people and wanted to do something to help.
Sarah is like the spoilt child who wants everything her way. It took her an awfully long time to realise the bigger picture and to understand that she was but one small cog in a bigger wheel operating throughout France in order to bring about the downfall of the megalomaniac that was Hitler. She really needed to grow up but she wasn't very world wise instead she was immature, childish, rebellious, moody, reckless and silly. She never stopped to think instead rushing headlong into situations that would put herself and those helping her in grave danger. She had been protected and cosseted all her life and she was just so impulsive and emotional when really she needed to reign things in and become aware that she needed to be on her guard at all times and work with people not against them.
She really did have a steep learning curve ahead of her and as time was of the essence she needed to man up so to speak pretty quickly or else she had no hope of reaching her intended destination as planned. There were was more than one occasion where I wanted to give her a good shake and say come on you are being so careless in both your actions and words. Despite being told to be wary and careful, time and time again she throws caution to the wind because she was too ruled by her heart. She just didn't have the stamina or even the cop on to be able to lie convincingly when the need arose and I could sense that other characters felt the same way about her. She had a long journey ahead of her and although her transformation is subtle at first gaining that sense of maturity and know how her character does begin to materialise. She slowly starts to understand that I have power and I can use it to my advantage and it's then that I finally began to get her as a character and my admiration for the courage,tenacity and determination that she develops began to grow.
Through an unsettling and horrific event more or less at the beginning stages of her journey Sarah finds herself travelling through France with Ralf who has deserted from the German army and if he is caught there will be devastating consequences. He has agreed with the French resistance to bring Sarah on the next stages of her journey and both travel under assumed identities with danger lurking at every corner. Again here is where I felt Sarah to be so innocent, too trusting and believing and her inexperience showed. Ralf was trying to do the job he had agreed to do and I do think his intentions of accompanying Sarah were genuine but she just literally fell deeply in love with him overnight and then she couldn't understand why he wasn't reciprocating these feelings. It was like this was her first time outside the cocoon of her family and her first real meeting with a man and spending time in such close proximity that she felt she had to more or less fall head over heels in love with him instantaneously.
Don't get me wrong I knew there was going to be some romance in this story but the way it occurred so quickly just highlighted how innocent Sarah truly was for a good half of this book. It was only in parts three and four that I felt things on the romantic front took on a more even footing and I could see that it did become genuine and that there would be many trying times ahead for both Ralf and Sarah and for many different reasons. Lack of experience, lust and infatuation may have been initial factors for Sarah developing feelings so quickly but these factors were slowly pushed aside and once she grew up a bit things felt more natural, legitimate and honest. Although I will say with regard to the letter writing it did show Sarah still didn't always think to do the right thing, even I could see how thoughtless she was being.
The Violin Maker's Daughter took a long time to get going. Honestly I found the first half a bit of a slog to get through and I questioned would I reach a turning point where I just desperately wanted to keep turning the pages where I would be so eager to find out what was going to happen? Thankfully that point did occur and I thought from the time when Sarah arrives in Poitiers onwards was undoubtedly the strongest part of the book and from that point on I loved the book. It was so worthwhile to keep persisting with the first half as I thought then everything took on a new dimension, a real sense of urgency,of wanting to get things done. Yes Sarah might have felt she was in limbo, in a waiting period but this was a period that needed to happen for her so she could grow and mature and garner the strength and know how in order to peruse with her next step.
Finally the changes that Sarah needed to make began to occur and my opinion of her totally changed. I thought the final part of the book was brilliant as she really steps outside of her comfort zone and becomes the woman she was destined to be. Although I will say the last two chapters felt too rushed with tying up of loose ends occurring within every sentence which is a shame given how much research obviously went into the story and how much time had been spent setting up and developing all the different plot lines.
The Violin Maker's Daughter was a bit of a mixed bag for me with the later half far outweighing the first but I am definitely glad I did read this book and I look forward to seeing will Sharon Maas stay writing about World War Two in France or will she take us to another country set during the same time period to get a different perspective on the war?
All Amazon UK book titles in bold are Affiliate links which will earn me a few pence if anyone clicks through and makes a purchase - any money earned will go towards buying books or gifts for giveaways.