Hannah and Emil

Belinda Castles

Hannah and Emil
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Hannah and Emil

Belinda Castles

Emil and Hannah live their lives amid the turmoil of 20th-century history. Emil, a German veteran of the Great War, has returned home to a disturbed nation. As inflation and unemployment edge the country near collapse, Emil’s involvement with the resistance ultimately forces him from his family and his home. Hannah, soaked in the many languages of her upbringing as a Russian Jew in the West End of London and intent on experiencing the world, leaves home for Europe, travelling into a continent headed again towards total war. In Brussels, she meets the devastated Emil, who has just crossed the border on foot from Nazi Germany, leaving tragedy in his wake. All too briefly, they make a life in England before war strikes, and Emil, an enemy alien, is interned and then sent away. Hannah, determined to find him, prepares herself for a lonely and dangerous journey across the seas. Hannah and Emil is a moving love story riven by the powerful currents of history - an inspiring story of courage, conviction, and love.


belinda1Already I can see the opening movie scene: through the dirt and darkness of war trudges a handsome man, boots worn, collar pulled tightly to keep the wind out, the streets are wet but the twinkle in his eyes, ladies and gentleman, the twinkle I tell you, lets us settle back. It allows us to make a cup of tea. We know that this is the beginning of an epic love story.

It has all the right ingredients. Devastating and devastated German soldier Emil survives the Great War and meets Hannah, a Russian Jew living in London, who is educated, passionate and courageous. Despite the bloody turmoil of ensueing conflict, their love endures both geography and politics.

This third novel of Castles’ works for several reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it is the true story of two people surviving extraordinary odds to live together peacefully, based on Castles’ very own grandparents. It is perhaps for this reason that the narrative retains poignancy where so many other novels of this ilk become mere fairy tales.

Secondly, Castles is a powerful writer. Her second book, The River Baptists won The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award after all. She is able to create a sense of wonder and pain with a seemingly effortless turn of phrase. It is her descriptions of the creases and the lines in her characters’ faces that allow the portraits of these two lead protagonists to be so vivid. It is because these people, Emil and Hannah, are so real that we as the reader become engaged, interested and, most of all, hopeful that they will be together.

Thirdly – and this will please many – Castles is clearly well researched. The details of the struggles of war prisoners, soldiers, women, refugees, dissidents and survivors are all recorded with reverence.

Some say this book is similar to Anna Funder’s recent Miles Franklin winner, All That I Am. I’m not sure of that; however, if you need a story to take you around the world and home again, here it is. If this were a movie, the closing scene would have bluer skies, some mountains and a house with smoke coming from the chimney. If that’s not hope and the ending that we all need, well … what story will please you?

chris Chris Gordon is the Events Coordinator for Readings and is a committee member of The Stella Prize.

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