Reviewed by Emma Crowley
On a cold, dark day in a tiny Dutch village, Saskia and her boyfriend Frans watch as Nazi soldiers force thousands of prisoners towards Amersfoort Concentration Camp. Their hearts break as they see the desperate faces of innocent men and women and realise that the war is closer to them than it’s ever been before…
Saskia’s father’s shop is raided when the guards suspect that he is Jewish, and Frans is soon forced to enter the concentration camp every day to collect scraps of food as it’s the only way to feed the animals on his family’s farm. But despite the growing fear the couple feel, when a prisoner begs Frans to send a letter to his beloved reassuring her he is alive, they know they must risk everything to help him. They smuggle his letter out, right under the noses of the Nazis. And eventually they ferry hundreds of messages for prisoners, bringing them hope in the darkest moments of their lives.
But every letter Frans gets out of the camp puts him in even more danger.
And every reply Saskia manages to collect is a risk.
And then Saskia is led into Kamp Amersfoort and is forced to wear a yellow star.
Inside, she cannot ignore the pain of the other prisoners, and Frans knows she will be putting herself in more danger to help them – attracting the attention of the guards. The couple know they must act. Everyone says it’s impossible to escape the camp, but it’s the only option they have left. Their love has kept them together but is it enough to help them survive?
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Girl Across the Wire Fence to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Girl Across the Wire Fence by Imogen Matthews is based around true events which provide plenty of realism to this story set in Holland during the later years of World War Two. This was an interesting read as I hadn’t previously read a book set in Holland during the war and had never known that the infamous camps were also located there. You read so many WW2 books set in Germany, France, Russia or Poland so it was refreshing to read of a different setting which provided an alternative aspect to the horrors of the war which we are all unfortunately too familiar with. It’s a quick read at just over 240 pages but the author does manage to pack a significant amount in, even though at times I felt a little more description and exploration was needed. Given the length of the book, I felt there was plenty of scope for more and the story could have been extended as the ending felt slightly rushed and abrupt in places.
Amersfoot is a village in Holland where the Germans have infiltrated every aspect of the residents lives and things are only getting worse. There are shortages of food, clothing and household goods and many shops are closing. Frans lives on a farm with his parents and younger siblings and given the horrific situation his country finds itself in, his family fair ever so slightly better than others in that they can provide food for the table and work on their farm. That’s not to say life is easy for them. How could it be when the country you have lived in for so long has been infiltrated by those hell bent on eradicating an entire section of the human race simply because of their religion? Frans is the stand out character of the book and this comes across right from the beginning. He takes over the task from his father of the daily visits to Kamp Amersfoot where Jews and ‘criminals’ have been imprisoned. Each day on his cart he enters the camp to collect potato peelings which are used as feed for his cattle. Frans can see the injustice in this. On one hand without this feed his cattle would die and where would that leave his family? But on the other hand the prisoners are starving and receive the merest of rations and he feels wrong to be taking what could save them. The cruel behaviour he witnesses in the camp is clearly not justified and he wishes he could do something that would help alleviate some of the pain the prisoners are suffering.
I loved the chapters that focused on Frans and was always eager to return to read of his viewpoint. He may only have been 16 but he came across as being wise beyond his years. He was so clued in to the bigger picture and was constantly thinking of plans in order to make life better for those that had reached rock bottom through unlawful persecution and terror. I loved Frans as a character, it’s cliched to use the terms brave, courageous and determined but that is what he was. He was also clever and forward thinking and used every available resource to his advantage, I thought he always put his life on the line despite being well aware of the consequences if caught but still he persisted and kept going forward with simple yet effective and ingenuitive ideas which would hopefully offer a ray of light to those experiencing the darkest of times. Frans could have easily turned a blind eye and just did the job he was sent to do at the camp but through his actions he showed he had a heart and was kind and compassionate.
Some of the more secondary characters were Cas, the younger brother of Frans, who accompanies him on the daily visits to the camp and who in turn played such a pivotal role in the entire secret operation that unfolds. Saskia is the girlfriend of Frans and they truly have a deep connection and love for each other. She aids Frans in his plan to smuggle letters in and out of the camp to those that need to hear words of comfort and solace. A network of sorts is created to establish links between those that await news on the outside of their loved ones and those on the inside tormented by what they are experiencing. Frans and Saskia are the links that bring this sense of unity about but it’s not without its perils. The fear of discovery lurks around every corner and the author did a wonderful job of portraying a real sense of danger, menace and threat.
As mentioned in the blurb fortunes change for Saskia and to be honest I found myself waiting for this event to occur for the majority of the novel and it only transpired towards the end. We didn’t hear from Saskia’s perspective as to her experience and I feel the story as a whole suffered because of this. Several chapters from her viewpoint when the worst befalls her would have brought it home even more just what Frans was doing putting his life on the lie on a daily basis. It wasn’t glossed over. Yes, it does say it happened and we see what the fall out is but still I wanted to know how Saskia felt now she was on the other side. At certain points I felt the story jumped forward a little bit and things weren’t explained in enough detail. It was like something was mentioned briefly and I would have loved to have read more detail but instead there we were moving on to the next event. There was just a little too much of skimming the surface when more in-depth analysis or detail was required.
Theo was the other major character to feature and although his story was horrific it was still Frans that really captured my interest and heart throughout. Theo finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time leading to his imprisonment and when the Germans strike he is taken to the camp leaving all connections to his beloved Annelies severed. That is until Frans comes up with his clever yet dangerous plan. The scene featuring Theo and the rose garden was truly shocking and jaw dropping and left me feeling cold and with a sick feeling to my stomach. It showed how the Nazi’s stopped at nothing in their desire to crush and annihilate the human spirit and took such pleasure from doing this.
Overall The Girl Across the Wire Fence was a good story and shows that Imogen Matthews has lots of potential writing in this genre. If the few issues I found could be ironed out in future books I know I would be fully captured from beginning to end. This book is worth a read for the different perspective of a another countries experiences during the war and how when such evil is all around you that compassion, strength, helpfulness, kindness and love can be found.