44. Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas

Monday 28 November 2016

Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max - whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler's regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry. But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realised; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?

Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history. 

While quite outside of the time period I like to read about within the Historical Fiction genre, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by Fifteen Words. 
Taken from the perspective of ordinary Germans fighting during WW2, it follows their different paths, struggles and trials as they come to terms with how differently their lives have become. Much like Das Boot, Fifteen Words shows the reader that not all Germans were hard line Nazis, most were just ordinary folk caught up in the ideal of 'making Germany great again'. Max and Erika meet while training to become doctors, and are very different creatures, starting at their upbringing and I have to admit, I preferred Max over Erika. She just wasn't likeable to me, and I struggled to reconcile a lot of the decisions she made throughout the story. I find that that is the danger of flipping between two different POVs, there is always one character you connect more with, who you root for more. This may have been deliberate on Thomas's part however, given the background she created for Ericka. 
The book starts very much in the thick of things, and certainly helps to set the scene and pace for the rest of the book. The harsh brutality of war is clear, especially after Max's unit's capture and the weaker patients are picked off one by one for slowing down the march. It seems unthinkable that such a lack of compassion and callous behaviour can be carried out without batting an eyelid, but then I remind myself how different the circumstances are under war. 
Thomas paints a very realistic picture, and has great skill in helping the reader to understand how both Max and Erika fall prey to temptation, as so many other did during the tumultuous war years. While Max is captured by the Soviets and serves time in a POW camp, Erika remains in Germany, and witnesses the fall of the Reich as the allies take hold of Hitler's Motherland. 
In this instance I don't want to go too deeply into the story-line, less I ruin the twist towards the end for anyone who goes on to read it. However, I what I will say is that Thomas artfully shows how the trauma of war can change two people very much, and how deeply the scars are left. She captures perfectly Max's confusion at being free, and back in the civilian world, and how it is so very, very alien to him after all his experiences. It is not a long read, and well worth the time if you enjoy this particular era of history. 
I particularly enjoyed how the choice of a specific 15 words ring through the core of the story, and ultimately determine the results, whether the characters intended them to or not. 

Rating: 4/5
You can purchase Fifteen words here

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