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Review: The German Heiress, by Anika Scott
Morrow, 2020. 357 pp. $17

Two years after World War II has ended, Clara Falkenberg is on the run. Living under an assumed name, on unconvincing fake papers, and with no visible means of support, Clara might be no different from many other Germans who’ve got something to hide. Except she’s the heiress to the Falkenberg mines and ironworks in Essen (a fictive rival to Krupp), and for her wartime activities helping to manage the firm, a British intelligence captain named Fenshaw is on her tail.

Like every other industrial concern, Falkenberg used up and spat out slave laborers by the thousands, which makes Clara an accessory to war crimes, if not a perpetrator. And when she dares attempt to return to bombed-out Essen, hoping to take refuge with a childhood friend, Fenshaw’s thinking right along with her. No matter where she goes, or what she does, he’s never far behind, and there are plenty of people willing to betray anyone for the right price.

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U.S. military intelligence photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau, June 1944, which shows the I. G. Farben installation, lower center (courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I salute Scott’s authorial bravery in attempting to cast a heroine from a war-criminal mold. I’m not sure she succeeds entirely — or, to be precise, whether she tells her tale with enough moral consciousness, having decided, for obvious reasons, to avoid certain enormities. But The German Heiress nevertheless has a few things going for it, and Scott tries to finesse the moral questions, grounding them in family relationships whose participants may or may not have deluded themselves.

To an extent, that works, though the strategy leaves two unmentioned, outsized elephants in the room — the slave labor program in its conception and practice, and the Holocaust. The Third Reich as a systematically murderous, exploitive regime never quite makes it to these pages, in part because the only visible inhuman act occurs on a relatively small scale and appears, in retrospect, only toward the end.

But approach the novel on its given terms, and you have a vigorous narrative peopled by unusual characters. Clara herself, if perhaps too lightly dealt with from a moral standpoint, has a passion to know the truth about her family, especially her beloved father, now interned as a war criminal. Does he deserve that? she wonders. What did he really think when he saw what was happening, because surely, he must have known? Where does that put her?

Her soul-searching redeems her somewhat, and I appreciate the author’s difficulty here, attempting to make a sympathetic character out of a slave overseer. Clara does have a certain appealing warmth and vivacity, and I like how Scott handles a nascent romance with Jakob, a disabled veteran turned black marketeer. The connection grows slowly, incrementally, with back-tracking and deal-cutting involved.

The storytelling keeps a rapid pace, and the pages turn. The plot revolves around Fenshaw’s pursuit and, more importantly, Clara’s uncovering of ugly family secrets that force her to reexamine her moral position and what she’s responsible for. Whether you can accept Clara’s insulation from stark wartime realities may depend on your point of view, but at least the family loyalty comes through, as does her disillusionment when she learns the truth. As for the narrative as a whole, Jakob’s voice enters abruptly, as does that of a young, disturbed boy who doesn’t believe the war has ended. But these bumps even out as the novel progresses, and Jakob steals many of the scenes he’s in. With him, as with Clara, Scott deploys detail with aplomb:

The stranger caught him, gasped at his weight, buckled and then stabilized. His smell hurtled Jakob back to days he didn’t want to remember. It was the smell of the front, of damp wool and oiled leather, of bergamot and citrus eau de cologne that didn’t quite cover the stink of a soldier’s fear. Whoever it was, he was thin, and he was shaking, and for the few moments Jakob had his arms around him, he felt the stranger’s wildly beating heart.

Two weak links mar the novel. I don’t believe Fenshaw for one second, whether it’s his fanatical pursuit of Clara, his broad-brush character, his fascination with her (which even dates from before the war), or his astonishing security lapses that further the plot. Given all these, the end, the second weak link, seems not only melodramatic but highly improbable.

That said, The German Heiress, a debut novel, is a provocative story, and I like those. And since I’m the type who can’t look at a Bayer aspirin bottle without thinking of the company’s infamous, erstwhile parent, I. G. Farben (disbanded after the war), that I sat still for this book instead of throwing it across the room testifies to the author’s talent for diverting me.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.