Thursday, 28 May 2020

Emma's Review: What Only We Know by Catherine Hokin

Reviewed by Emma Crowley
A door slammed and the unmistakable sound of boots came crashing up the hall. Liese held her little daughter’s hand so tightly, the tiny fingers had turned purple. The SS officer’s hand was at Liese’s throat before she saw him move. ‘I can kill you easily, then I can kill your daughter.’ He relaxed his grip a little. ‘Or perhaps I could kill her first?’
England, forty years later. When Karen Cartwright is unexpectedly called home to nurse her ailing father, she goes with a heavy heart. The house she grew up in feels haunted by the memory her father’s closely guarded secrets about her beautiful mother Elizabeth’s tragic death years before.

As she packs up the house, Karen discovers an old photograph and a stranger’s tattered love letter to her mother postmarked from Germany after the war.

During her life, Karen struggled to understand her shy, fearful mother, but now she is realising there was so much more to Elizabeth than she knew. For one thing, her name wasn’t even Elizabeth, and her harrowing story begins long before Karen was born.

It’s 1936 in Berlin, and a young woman called Liese is being forced to wear a yellow star…

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Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of What Only We Know to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

What Only We Know is the second book to be published this year from Catherine Hokin following The Fortunate Ones which was published in January. Again as with her previous book, for the first half of this new story I felt it was only an OK read but then came that one pivotal moment/scene that transformed the story from average to fantastic. You quickly come to appreciate the many layers involved packed full of emotion, sacrifice, loss and pain that transcend the later half of the book. Yes there is a really slow start and I know several weeks prior to publication that the beginning was redrafted slightly to make it feel less slow in its pace so that we could get to the action more quickly but still I think this problem persisted and it was the same with her first book.

The beginning felt sluggish and disjointed and I couldn't see how connections would start to become apparent and as it was a dual timeline story I was quite worried that the modern times began in 1971. I'm not used to this, I like a dual time line story set in the very present day that then reverts back to the past. In this instance I thought the two timelines were too close together. There wasn't much separating them in terms of years and this needs to happen in order to get a real sense of mystery and of characters in the present delving far back to a time so very different from the one they live in now in order to unravel secrets and puzzles that have been hidden for many years. Thankfully the author moved the story forward and brought us up to the 1990's and when this did happen I could see the necessity for starting in 1971 and following Karen from childhood into adulthood as one event significantly shaped the rest of her life. It may sound like I didn't enjoy this book at all but that couldn't be further from the truth. Aside from what I have mentioned up above and I felt the necessity to do so because I think other readers will feel the same and I have noticed it mentioned in some other early reviews of this book, this story is a remarkable, heartbreaking one and at the halfway point because of one particular scene I became completely invested in it right until the very end.

The book opens with a brief and mysterious prologue set in July 1971. The reader can tell a woman is at breaking point and that her divisive actions will form the main focus for the remainder of the story that will unfold. Something has happened that has made her deeply unhappy and anxious and the guilt is eating away at her. We then move forward to September of that year as Karen aged 11 faces the realities that her mother is dead and she must try and come to terms with the new world presented to her. Her father Andrew is cold and standoffish and because he is in the army he adheres to strict rules and regulations that spill forth into his home life. He was not open, warm and loving like a father should be especially in the wake of his daughter losing her mother.

But you can tell that things were never truly normal for this family and that the loss of her mother will have a profound and lasting impact on Karen. Things that she took for granted as she was growing up as to how her mother acted, behaved and mothered her over time she will begin to question these. Andrew eradicates all signs of his wife and is determined life will continue on but he forms no connection with Karen. Nor does he offer her the solace and comfort and also answers that she so desperately craves. Over the course of the book we move forward in Karen's life at various intervals, we come back to her story in between reading that of Liese's. Some sections regarding Karen I felt were necessary whereas others felt surplus to requirements and did nothing to move the story further forwards. It's only when we reach the point that Andrew has a heart attack and becomes seriously ill as a result that Karen's story really picks up and she soon discovers there are many layers to her life and her past that are there waiting to be uncovered.

Many years ago having found a picture and passport details of her mother whom she knew as Elizabeth set forth a chain of thoughts and ideas but at that time Karen never had the true compulsion to act on them but now as she clears out her fathers house she discovers a letter written to her mother and it presents questions she knows she has to find the answers to. What she thought of as fact from her childhood may all be fiction and if she can travel to Germany and seek what has eluded her in relation to the reason for her mother's death and why her father acts the way he does as in being so reticent maybe then Karen herself can come to terms with everything. She will be able to alter the course of her future in order to make it more positive.

Karen wasn't the nicest of characters in the beginning. I felt she was very whingey and a bit all about herself. She was someone who needed to open her eyes to the wider world and look at the clues all around her. That in fact her parents may have had an important role to play in the history of the world and what they went through in turn deeply affected how they acted in the present. I thought Karen's story really improved when she went to Berlin and met Markus.

Things started to come full circle and I loved how the author told us about the divide between West and East and how the establishing of the Berlin Wall had such an impact on the citizens especially after having endured so much during the war. We don't get to read about the later history of Germany, normally everything focuses on the war years so this was interesting and informative and helped provide a well balanced view to the overall story. I did think the romance element was a little bit too obvious and maybe just put in there because sure that has to be part of a book as well. It would have been fine without it and it felt a bit forced, rushed and unnatural and I didn’t feel this burning desire between the pair. I'd love an author not to feel the need to include this in every book and instead let the historical elements stand for themselves and do the talking.

For me without doubt, Liese's story were the strongest sections of the book. Again it started slow but built to a crescendo of epic proportions that will leave you heartbroken and aghast but filled with nothing but admiration for a young girl who went from the daughter of one of the top fashion houses in Berlin to the lowest of the low in Hitler's quest to rid the world of Jews. Liese was a remarkable character who time and time again showed her worth, her strength, courage, determination and the endless love and devotion she had for someone she had so dear to her heart forever and always. When we first meet Liese times are still good for her family. Her parents Paul and Margarethe are the toast of Berlin society because of the fashion house they run with help from Otto. But this pair are truly caught up in themselves and really don't have the right to call themselves parents. Liese is completely neglected emotionally and she spends her time with Michael Otto's son who has joined the KPD, a group set up to oppose Hitler and all he is trying to enforce. Michael goes on to play a crucial role throughout the book and his role in the resistance is to be admired for the danger he places himself in and the sacrifices he makes and the devotion he shows to Liese time and time again.

Paul and Margarethe were characters who I wanted to slap in the face and as the situation with the Nazi's worsened and their home life deteriorated the couple just proved how worthless they were as their business crumbled around them and a target was placed on the family's backs because they were Jewish. We move forward in time every few chapters and we can see their fall from grace and it is Liese who now steps up to the forefront and tries to make the best of a horrific situation as they are confined to two rooms in a less than desirable area and more and more laws are being introduced with tighter and tighter food restrictions also.

I'm glad no details were spared as what Liese endures for the remainder of the novel was horrific. How she remained so stoic and never gave in to the taunts and the things that she actually wanted to do I will never know. For what befalls her is abhorrent, heinous, gruesome and earth shattering. At times I questioned how could the characters cope and keep going on as things just kept getting worse and worse and in particular the later half concerning Liese broke me in two. It was detailed and grim but it needed to be to make such a powerful impact. Throughout my reading of this book I was constantly questioning would there be a big reveal or a moment where I would be left open mouthed with shock and yes there was and it truly helped me make sense of the entire story and I realised that the author had blended imagination with historical fact to an incredible level.

Do bear with What Only We Know because to do so proves very fruitful and rewarding. That one scene will completely change your attitudes towards the story and any opinions you may have formed of it. From the midway point Catherine Hokin excels at telling a story that will completely wrench you in two and leave you heartbroken and devastated but at the same time a small bit of hope remains as one character finds redemption and acceptance. OK it won't grab your attention from the immediate start and I was worried I wouldn't like it as much as her previous book but to abandon it would be completely unfair as persistence does pay off as you are taken on an exhilarating journey full of strength, conviction, empowerment and yes horror, sadness, loss and devastation but overall the author really pulled it off and confirmed for me that if the issues with the beginning of her books could be sorted that she will truly catapult herself to the top of the historical fiction genre and all of her books will become impossible to stop reading once you pick them up.

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