A classic Romeo and Juliet tale of love and loss that feels brand new [Review]
By John Millen
Originally published on South China Morning Post – Young Post
By John Millen
November 26, 2017
A Berlin Love Song is a brilliant and heart-wrenching novel that has the classic feel to it right from page one. Matthias has written a book that will affect anyone who reads it like no other YA novel has done this year
Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous works of literature of all time. It tells the story of two teenagers from rival families who fall in love – but of course, their love is doomed. This classic story has inspired countless other books, films and stage musicals.
Sarah Matthias’s latest YA novel, A Berlin Love Song, is a brilliant new take on the theme. It is set in Berlin in the late 1930s, as Germany is barrelling towards war.
Max is a German schoolboy when he first meets Lili, a trapeze artist from a Roma travelling circus that performs in Berlin every year. The scene is set for a tragic love story, against the backdrop of the devastation of the second world war.
The Roma, or Romani, people were peaceful travellers with their own culture and language, and they criss-crossed northern Europe setting up their gypsy camps the of towns.
When the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, the Roma were one of the social groups that Nazi policy aimed to eradicate.
Matthias spent some time researching the second world war and discovered that in addition to the six million Jews who were killed by the Nazis, up to half a million Romani people were also wiped out.
A Berlin Love Song is a work of fiction, but it is inspired by true events. The resulting novel is a long, detailed and utterly absorbing read. At times, it is desperately sad and at other times, full of family strength and emotional truth. This is one book that definitely stays in your mind once the story has played out.
It isn’t until Max is a very old man that he at last begins to write his memoirs of what happened so long ago. And so the story begins: an ordinary German boy and a Romani girl meet by chance and fall in love.
Max’s father initially refuses to be drawn into the Nazi regime, but soon he has to face the terrible punishment for any German who refuses to accept Hitler. The Romani are branded as “gypsy scum” and Lili’s father is reluctant to accept the evil that is knocking on his door.
It is clear that Lili and Max will have no say in what is inevitably bound to happen to them. Their paths have been decided by terrible forces outside their control.
A Berlin Love Song is a brilliant and heart-wrenching novel that has the classic feel to it right from page one. Matthias has written a book that will affect anyone who reads it like no other YA novel has done this year.
Playing by the Book Interviews Sarah Matthias
22nd June 2017
By Zoe Toft
Eloquent, vivid, compelling and deeply moving, A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias (@SarahMatthias7) is one of those books I regret leaving in my bedside pile for too long. This historical novel, exploring the experience of Romanies during the Holocaust, is full of colour and intensity, gentleness and hope and could have become part of my internal store of nourishment, wonder and beauty months before it did, if only I’d known! It nurtures the belief that wonder and love can still be found in the midst of despair and hatred, and I know I certainly need such encouragement and optimism when I look at the world around me at the moment.
A Berlin Love Song is the story of how Max and Lili’s lives become entwined through a chance meeting, when one evening just before the outbreak of the Second World War Max visits a travelling circus. Romani trapeze artist Lili takes Max’s breath away but little does he realise how their lives will complicate, and enrich, each other’s until the end of their days. Max is forced to become a member of the Hitler Youth, and Lili has to wrestle with her community’s prohibition on relationships with outsiders. As if these were not barriers enough, Max is then sent to fight in France, and Lili becomes interned in a concentration camp. How can their love possibly survive?
A Berlin Love Song serves up complexity and seriousness with grace and clarity, creating a deeply satisfying story, brought to life through characters, settings and tableaux that will echo in your mind long after you’ve finished the book.
Sarah Matthias grew up in the north of England before studying at Oxford University. Employment as a BBC trainee producer, a barrister, a university lecturer in land law and trusts followed, but with the arrival of her fourth child, Sarah wanted something that would work better with family life, and thus writing took over. Three medieval mysteries for children followed in fairly quick succession in the 2000s, but then there was an eight year gap before earlier this year A Berlin Love Song was published.
Having been deeply entranced and profoundly moved by A Berlin Love Song, I approached Sarah and listened with delight as she told me about her writing, her research and how she too has been known to enjoy ‘playing by the book’. We started off talking about the books she loved as a child, and whether historical novels had been her genre of choice, given that all her published books as an adult are historical fiction.
Sure enough, it turned out one of Sarah’s favourite authors was Jean Plaidy, with Sarah devouring every one of her books. “I started with the Tudors and worked my way through the Stuarts, the Plantagenets, the Medicis. I was such a bookworm and I can still feel that fizzy feeling in my stomach when I see an old Jean Plaidy paperback published by Pan, with its iconic white cover with a moody looking lady in a long dress staring tantalisingly into the distance.”
But if truth be told, it wasn’t the lure of historical detail that initially drove Sarah’s hunger for Plaidy’s stores; it was sex!
Sarah’s late father was a clergyman, a lovely man, but very strict and ‘the facts of life’ were not a topic for conversation at home. Having heard from one of her classmates that sex was quite a prominent feature in Jean Plaidy’s stories, Sarah devised a ploy to get her hands on some of her books.
“I lied to my father and told him that my history teacher had told me to read Jean Plaidy as it was very historically accurate. My father was very keen on education and fell for my story and lent me one of his adult library tickets over a period of a few months.”
Whilst I don’t press Sarah on how her sex education benefited from reading Plaidy’s novels, her school work definitely did; just after completing all of Plaidy’s Tudor series about Henry VIII, Sarah had to sit an exam, “a general knowledge exam at school where we were asked to write about anything that interested us. I wrote about Henry and all his wives in great detail including the manner of each of their deaths. One of the teachers at school told my parents that she couldn’t believe how much I knew about Tudor history for a child of 11. Hurrah for Jean Plaidy!”
Whilst now as an adult reader Sarah still enjoys historical novels, and especially those of Rose Tremain, her reading-for-pleasure habits have changed over the years, and she raises a point I’m particularly intrigued by, with my special interest in non-fiction books. “Since I’ve been writing fiction I’ve gradually begun to read more biography and non-fiction. I’ve a hunch it’s because I can switch off and relax more with it than with fiction.”
I wonder why this should be the case and Sarah suggests it may be something to do with reflecting on her own work. “When reading fiction, if I don’t like a writer’s technique, I make a mental note not to fall into the same trap. If I admire the way someone has created an atmosphere or described something, I try to work out how they’ve done it so well and take the lesson on board. So I’m always stopping and musing on style and I find that this irritating habit of mine interrupts the flow of the story. I don’t tend to do this with factual books or biography – probably because I’ve never written any, so I’m not mentally going through the editing process.”
Sarah’s increased non-fiction diet is surely also partly due to the sheer intensity of research she must have done for A Berlin Love Song; as I read it I was particularly struck by how much thoughtful, detailed and revealing research shone through the story, embellishing it with all sorts of tiny, meticulous, authenticating details without ever overwhelming the narrative or emotional threads. I’m sure we’ve all on occasion read historical novels where it has felt like the writer has wanted to include every single nugget unearthed during the process of researching a book, sadly to its detriment, but it never feels like this with A Berlin Love Song even though I’m sure Sarah must have been researching for years before she started writing her story.
“Yes, I’m meticulous about historical research. I try to be as historically accurate as I can because I’m very aware that sometimes a novel might be the only literature a reader will read about a subject; I feel I have a certain obligation not to mislead,” says Sarah, making me think of the recent debate about Hilary Mantel and how accurate (or otherwise) her novels are.
Sarah continues, “You can always say that a novelist isn’t a history teacher and if the reader wants to know about history they should read a history book – but I know lots of people who enjoy historical novels but wouldn’t read non-fiction. Not everyone enjoys reading history books and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
As well as visiting Germany several times, Sarah read as many diaries as possible written by Germans during the war. As her novel is set in Germany, and told from a German perspective, it was very important to Sarah to really get a feel of how Germans viewed events during the war, and for Sarah not to be influence by the victor’s narrative that is perhaps more dominant in the UK, especially the UK’s education system. Likewise, when researching the Romani experiences of the holocaust, Sarah was careful not to let her reading of accounts by Jewish survivors influence her, because the Romani experience was quite different.
As to the nuts and bolts of Sarah’s research process, whilst she employs two particular techniques to track her research, the direction in which it goes isn’t one she can necessarily predict from the outset. “I only ever have the germ of an idea when I begin. I never have a fully worked out plot, although I do know more or less where I’m going by the time I start to write. In the beginning, I have a hunch that there might be a story somewhere and so I go looking for it. I start by simply reading. I read and read around the subject and as I do the plot begins to form in my imagination. I read serious history books about the period and memoirs written by real characters from the past.”
Character boards and big A4 notebooks are tools she uses to bring her research together. The boards are A3 pieces of card with photographs and snippets of imagined dialogue or other details, “descriptions of how my characters might look, what they might have worn, and what their personalities might be like. These will shift and change as I read, so by the end of my research – it all looks a bit of a mess.”
But there’s actually lots of order in that apparent mess. “I have big A4 notebooks I buy from Rymans divided up with coloured dividers and I label each section. So for example, for A Berlin Love Song, I had sections entitled: Hitler Youth, the Hartmann family home, Air Raids, Music, Propaganda, Religion etc. I had a separate A4 note book for the war years, each year 1939 – 1945 having its own section.”
Sarah seems able to hold on to vast amounts of detail, and to know when to use it effectively to bring a particular scene to life and so I’m not surprised when she tells me, with delight, how she researched the weather for every day of every year of the war, in order that she could occasionally but always accurately include such details in the book.
Not only do such facts help with a sense of authenticity, they also help in structuring her drafts as she works towards a final version. “After the research is done I enjoy making my plot fit in with what really happened. The historical facts form a sort of skeleton and my characters are the flesh on the bones but the flesh has to fit the skeleton properly – no lumps and bumps and ‘muffin tops’. I find having a structure of real events is very helpful. It makes it easier for me when I’m plotting. I always think writing fantasy must be very hard because there’s no structure except one that the writer has to imagine.”
But with so many facts, so many true details, Sarah then has to make judicious decisions about what to include and what to cut. She herself hates “writers who appear to have ‘swallowed a history book’” though she fully understands the temptation to use everything one has come across in the course of research.
“The bottom line for me is that I’m a storyteller and I’m not trying to teach history. I want my novels to be historically accurate and if people learn things they didn’t know along the way then that’s great. But I don’t write to tell people about history. I write to tell stories that I think ought to be told or shine a light on issues that have moved me and I think need to be exposed. I use my research to add local flavour, colour, depth of character and to inform conversations, but I try never to slip in something I know just because I happen to know it.”
Sarah then goes on to amaze me with her knowledge of the colour of every ration ticket ever issued to Germans throughout the course of the entire year and her ability to recall such tiny details prompts me to ask if her past career as a lawyer (a line of work where accurately holding on to lots of detail is vital) might have helped lay the ground for her writing career. At first she seems somewhat surprised by my suggestion:
“I don’t think legal writing and creative writing have anything remotely in common! A lawyer needs to use language very precisely. A whole case can turn on the position of a comma. There’s no room for shades of grey. You need to say exactly what you mean or you’ll be in difficulties. But in creative writing, shades of grey are vital; life is not black and white and characters can be contradictory. They often say things they don’t really mean or that can be interpreted in several different ways and the reader has to guess what they mean. A novelist can be deliberately ambiguous to serve the plot whereas a lawyer cannot be ambiguous at all – ever! So no, my past legal career has not helped me to write novels!”
I press Sarah on this. Perhaps being even more acutely aware of ambiguity, even if only to ensure that there is none in the case of legal writing, may have helped hone her creative writing skills? Sarah remains sceptical but does then concede that two aspects of her legal career have helped her writing considerably:
“As a lawyer you have to be able to see things from several different points of view. For example, if you are representing a client, you need to imagine what your opponent will say in reply to what your own client might say. You need to understand both sides of the argument – or sometimes there are many sides. Only by doing this can you prepare your counter arguments effectively. So, yes, I think a legal training is good for that aspect of the creative process. I’ve been well trained in looking at life and events from all sides and seeing lots of different points of view about the same topic at the same time.”
And what about the cut and thrust of the court room? Surely that’s a fertile ground for writers (as John Grisham’s experience might suggest)?
“Well, yes, it’s helpful when writing dialogue, especially when writing about people arguing! Though as a mother of 4 young adults myself I have listened to countless family ‘disagreements’ and whilst writers usually have to use their imagination to create unknown worlds I didn’t have to look much further than my own kitchen table for a rich source of dialogue for the Hartmann children!”
And some rich family dialogue that Sarah may have been able to draw upon arose not that long ago when Sarah decided to make her family participate in an experiment to better understand wartime cuisine. This anecdote arose when I asked Sarah about books which she’s read which resulted in her “playing” or somehow being creative, in the spirit of this blog.
Sarah remembered somewhat ruefully when she “bought a book at the Imperial War Museum about Wartime Recipes: The Wartime Kitchen and Garden. I was curious to know how people made meals with so little and so I decided our family would eat only wartime food for a week. I stuffed a marrow with mince and rice, more rice than mince. I made Fish Paste Sandwich Filling with more potato than fish and ‘Viennese’ fishcakes with potatoes and anchovy essence but no fish! They weren’t popular. My Beefy Stew with Vegetables also went down very badly. There was no meat in the stew, just Bovril gravy. It almost caused a riot. But it was the Egg and Rice Loaf with something called ‘vegetable boilings’, dried eggs and parsley that created the final walk out. We ate an Indian takeaway that night and I was made to promise to consign the book to the charity book bank!”
More recent ‘playing by the book’ has revolved around re-learning to play the piano. Having read Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, a sad tale about an amazingly gifted black German citizen called Hieronymous Falk, a jazz musician and rising star of the cabaret scene, Sarah really got into Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. She’s now bought herself a piano book called ‘Big Band Intermediate’ and “tortures” her family with it. “I call all the wrong notes ‘improvisation’ but they still put their fingers in their ears!”
And now that A Berlin Love Song is out there in bookshops, libraries and finding its way into homes and hearts, when Sarah is not improvising on the piano, she’s working on a couple of ideas for what comes next story-wise. “One is set in Zambia and the other is a parallel tale to A Berlin Love Song, looking at another little explored issue from the Nazi era, and using some of the characters from the novel that I really enjoyed creating but who didn’t have a ‘starring role’ in A Berlin Love Song. So it won’t be about Lili – but perhaps more about Professor Hartmann and Erika. I’m excited about both ideas, but I need to make up my mind soon where I’m going next.”
Having been born in Zambia myself, I’m very excited at the prospect of a new novel by Sarah set there. But I also know I will be thrilled to return to some of the characters from A Berlin Love Song. Definitely a Win-Win situation!
My thanks go to Sarah for so generously responding to all my questions. A Berlin Love Song will surely be on several award shortlists next year.
Islington Faces speaks to author Sarah Matthias
7th June, 2017
Review by Nicola Baird + Photo’s by Kimi Gill
When Highbury local Sarah Matthias isn’t busy as membership secretary of the Islington Choral Society she’s writing books. Here she talks about life in Islington and the inspiration for her latest novel, ‘A Berlin Love Song’. Interview by Nicola Baird & photos by Kimi Gill
A Berlin Love Song follows the story of Lili, a Romani girl, and Max, a Berlin schoolboy who is forced to join the Hitler Youth and ultimately conscripted into the German Army. It’s Young Adult (YA)/Adult fiction with a strong plot wrapped around Romani persecution and the mass indoctrination of ordinary Germans and in particular, the Hitler Youth.
“I was always interested in the war,” says Sarah Matthias who has family roots in Yorkshire but because her father was a clergyman, she moved around a great deal as a child. “My father was in the RAF during the war and when we lived in Hull our next door neighbour was Mr Adler, a Jewish refugee who had been in Auschwitz. He was a dentist and a good friend to our family – he’d look after our hamsters and rabbits if we were away. He’d occasionally talk about Auschwitz and become really shaky and tearful. As a child it seemed strange that a dentist’s hands shook. My father was also involved in a Post War Reconciliation Project (see more about this here) and became friends with Pastor Knott who had also been forced to join the Hitler Youth (like so many Germans including Gunter Grass and Pope Benedict). Pastor Knott had tried to become a conscientious objector in 1939 and somehow ended up as chaplain to German POWs living in the Midlands.”
Sarah’s interest in Germany was given another boost when she met and married her husband, David. “He was a tank commander in the British Army patrolling Berlin in tanks and armoured cars in the 1970s when it was a divided city. When our children were little – there are four who’ve grown up in Islington – we’d go to visit the places in Germany where their Dad used to work.”
Author Sarah Matthias: “I think of Islington as my home – I’ve lived here since 1983 when my husband and I bought our first flat on Highbury New Park.” Sarah and her family now live on Balfour Road. (c) Kimi Gill Photography on Islington Faces
Places Sarah Matthias likes around Islington
Clissold Park – I’ve got three dogs so know a lot of people from dog walking. The launch of A Berlin Love Song at Ink 84 was packed with choristers and dog walkers. It helped too that co-owner Tessa Shaw’s boys were at school with my children and Tessa’s husband, Peter Strivens, is in the choir.
Highness Café & Tea Room – It’s a family run café with really good wifi, coffee and delicious cake. I did a bit of writing for A Berlin Love Song at Highness Tea Room, and I get all our birthday cakes from there.
The Brewhouse and Kitchen at Highbury Corner has become a big part of my life because after rehearsals that’s where we go. There are a lot of interesting beers but I have wine.
The Baptist church, 40 Highbury Place, on Highbury Fields – it’s really difficult to find a place with two rehearsal rooms, both with pianos, and a kitchen which is also close to bus routes and the tube station, so the Baptist Church is perfect for the Islington Choral Society.
Central Library – I’ve got very fond memories of taking all my family when they were children to the library on 2 Fieldway Crescent. We lived in it!
Sacre Coeur, 18 Theberton Street, N1 – it’s really good value and I love the cod with mashed potato.
A Berlin Love Song is Sarah’s fourth published book – she’s known for her time slip novel, The Riddle of the Poisoned Monk and also for the lively Medieval series following Tom Fletcher, a reluctant novice and supersleuth.
Sarah went to Oxford University, joined the BBC and then retrained as a barrister, so it’s no surprise that she is passionate about getting the research for her books right. But don’t worry she doesn’t force that on the readers. “I see myself as a storyteller first and foremost, not a historian. My passion is to use history as the backdrop so I did a huge amount of research about the home front in Germany, but the story has got to be plot driven.”
Then in 2011 Sarah says: “I was travelling with my husband and went to the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and saw their first blockbuster show about Hitler and the Germans: a nation and crime which tried to show how Hitler had seduced a nation. I was shocked by the dolls’ houses with their tiny china tea services decorated with swastikas. Even the dolls’ house wallpaper showed scenes of Hitler Youth campsites. There were just three showcases about the fate of the Romanies. I hadn’t realised that up to half a million Romanies were killed. Some people say there might have been more, since no records were kept of the mass shootings in the woods, and concentration camp records were often destroyed by the Nazis as the Allies advanced. Nobody was called to testify on behalf of the Romani victims at the Nuremberg trials and no war crime reparations were paid because the Germans insisted they had been persecuted as asocial thieves and criminals, not on grounds of race.”
That visit helped Sarah develop Lili and Max’s story which became A Berlin Love Song. Islington Faces has read A Berlin Love Song and plans to pass it to my teenage daughters when exam season is over as I’m certain they’ll love the romance, coming of age. I’m also hoping my book group will read it. It was recently chosen by the Historical Novel Society as their Editor’s choice for their quarterly magazine. Whether the book group go for it or not, already A Berlin Love Song is proving a popular choice in Islington thanks to Sarah’s book launch being held last month (April) at her nearest book shop, Ink@84 on Highbury Park. And Ink@84 is also an ideal place to buy a copy. Just remember to keep a tissue by you because the ending has to be bleak.
- Find Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias on Amazon here
- Info about how to join Islington Choral Society (and their concerts) which rehearses every Tuesday is on its website and facebook. Next concert is on Saturday 1 July – choral music by Vierne, Fauré and Franck.
- See more Kimi Gill Photography on her website here.
The Book Activist Reviews ‘A Berlin Love Song’.
6th June, 2017
Reviewed by thebookactivist
Sometimes you read a book and when you reach the final page, you realise the story has found its way into your soul. Heart-wrenching, beautiful and so well written A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is undoubtedly one of those stories and stays with you long after the final page.
It is the fourth book written by Sarah; a YA novel published by Troika Books. Her first job after leaving Oxford university was with the BBC where she was involved in a documentary called The Nazi Hunter, based on the life and work of Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who spent much of his life tracking down war criminals. A Berlin exhibition, Hitler and the Germans, Nation and Crime, further inspired her to research the wartime persecution of the Romani people, and to write A Berlin Love Song.
Max is a German schoolboy, when he first meets Lili, a trapeze artist from a travelling circus that performs every year in Berlin. Lili is a Romani and her life and customs are very different from those of Max and his family. Their friendship turns into love, but love between a German and a Romani is definitely forbidden. As Max is conscripted into the SS and war tears them apart, can their love survive?
The story starts in present day, where Max, now an old man, is finally writing down his precious memories from long ago. We are drawn into a narrative telling the tale of how he, an ordinary German boy, and Lili, a beautiful Romani girl, fall in love. Theirs is a love that is a meeting of souls; a love that cannot be ignored; “a kind of madness”. Alongside this, we are shown the impending doom of the rise of the Nazis; the impact the looming war has on everyday life and ultimately how families are ripped apart. Max’s father refuses to conform to the Hitler regime; Lili’s father won’t acknowledge the threat posed by the Nazis to the Roma. But with the persecution of many groups identified as “gypsy scum” along with the Jews, and with the terrible punishment for those Germans refusing to respond to Hitler’s call, both Max and Lili’s families have no choice but to face the unavoidable. It is clear that Max and Lili will be unable to choose which ‘side’ they are on; their paths are inevitable.
A Berlin Love Song is a beautiful love story and a brilliant but terrible reflection of the ‘forgotten holocaust’ – the persecution of the Roma and Sinti people during World War 2. The thread of love that runs through the narrative keeps hope alive and whilst the inevitability of the war unfolds, we see that even the most physically broken of people survive in spirit. The stark realities of war are portrayed through the eyes of Max and Lili and through the very different experiences of their families. It never ceases to fill me with horror the atrocities that took place in World War 2 and the characters are so real in this story, it feels like a true to life account.
Thankfully there are moments throughout that restore your faith in humanity. The Roma people are beautifully brought to life – the colour, the freedom, the music and above all the spirit of the people leap off the page. Added to this the wonderful descriptions of Lili’s home and livelihood, Circus Petalo, it is no wonder Max falls for her. Set alongside the stifling household of his own family, Lili is a breath of fresh air. Max’s household have very different opinions about Hitler and the Nazis; the claustrophobia and the fear of this situation are palpable and there is a sense Max finds an escape through his love for Lili. Meanwhile, the threats to Lili’s family grow ever closer and the sense of foreboding increases in intensity with every page.
A Berlin Love Song is well-paced and the juxtaposition of the romance alongside the complexities of war keep the reader captivated throughout. Whilst desperately sad in places, the story holds the joy of love and the strength found in family at its heart. A very appropriate metaphor for our time.
An Awfully Big Blog Adventure Reviews ‘A Berlin Love Song’
Thursday, 4 May 2017
I do like a novel that as well as being a good story teaches me something. A Berlin Love Song does just that, putting life into what must have been a huge research task in order to show what happened in what’s been called ‘the forgotten Holocaust’ of Germany’s Romani people.
But this story does more than show the experience of one Gypsy family, and one teenage trapeze artist, Lily, in particular. It counterpoints Lily’s experience of life and death in Second World War Germany with that of her lover Max, a teenage boy from a rich Berlin family whose members all react differently to the demands that Hitler’s government puts on them. Max isn’t much interested in politics, but finds himself having to become a member of the Hitler Youth movement, and then a member of the SS in the dying days of the war. Both Lily’s and Max’s points of view give us a fresh alternative to the usual British point of view we experience when reading about World War Two, and that in itself gives great food for thought.
This all sounds grim, and of course much of what we experience in the story is, but the story starts with the aged Max looking back to his teenage romance to tell the story of both those characters and their families, so we know from the start that at least he survived. We also have the wonderfully colourful life of the circus performer Romanies pre-internment, we have the romance of the love story to carry us through, and a positive and hopeful ending is achieved (but I’m not going to give it away!).
In order to keep the story moving, Sarah Matthias has resisted stopping to explain things as we go, so the story assumes a certain knowledge of what concentration camps are and how these Nazi ones worked, what Doctor Mengele really did, as well as the experience to understand from the clues given that Lily and Max have made love.
For most of the story, Max and Lily are in different locations, and so the story is told first person by each of them in short chapters that jump from one to the other. We never lose sight of either character for long, so the story flows well once the contrivance of the old man at the beginning is passed. So many characters and such a lot of complex history, this is a great achievement!
The Historical Novel Society Reviews ‘A Berlin Love Song’
Perfectly pitched to YA readers, this is a beautifully evoked love story between a Romani girl and a German soldier during WWII. The events unfold from both viewpoints: Max, who looks back to the feelings that overwhelmed him as a seventeen-year-old, encountering dark-haired Lili for the first time. And Lili, a trapeze artist from a circus family, whose love for a middle-class Berlin gadjo was always doomed.
Sarah Matthias set out to write about the under-documented persecution of Romani people under Hitler. She succeeds here quite brilliantly. We see the build-up of the Reich, the events of war and the dire experience of the camps through the disbelieving eyes and love-fogged brains of these two characters and their very different families.
The main story thread is a poignant one and has the ring of emotional truth, but the novel touches on many other emotional complexities in war. Max, a reluctant conscript, gets sucked into the camaraderie and glory of being a gunner. Not all the SS guards in the Romani concentration camp lack humanity.
This is a long read that is well-paced and always absorbing. Matthias is adept at evoking family life and its daily details: ‘I stared at her legs with a brotherly eye. Were those real silk stockings or just gravy browning and a line of pencil?’ She skilfully weaves in Romani words, stories and customs, such as when Lili risks telling a long Zigeuner (Roma) story to Doktor Mengele, notorious in real life for his experimentation on prisoners.
I loved everything about this book, from the freshness of the writing: ‘Helmuth roared into the farmyard on his motorbike, scattering hens like skittles’, to the harsh intensity of a romance ensnared in the dark events of the Romani Holocaust. One for every library and older-teenage bookshelf.The Historical Novel Society
Reader Reviews for A Berlin Love Song
A soon to be bestseller, there are no words to describe how much I adored this beautiful novel. A haunting, bittersweet story about forbidden love, set in the harsh reality of the Second World War.
‘A Berlin Love Song’ is an utterly beautiful, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking novel about a forbidden love set in the harsh reality of the Second World War. Unlike anything I’ve ever read before and a soon to be best-seller, this book is something that everyone should read; you experience the war through ordinary Germans, through the Romani community, and through two teenagers going against what they have been taught.
The language in this book is utterly stunning and the plot is at just the right pace. This book is shocking at some parts, even more horrific considering it was based something that really did happen, and lovely at others.
In this book you experienced the ways of the Romani life, the persecution of so many, and how even Germans who did not agree with what was going on were forced and bullied until they gave in.
Through all the darkness, there were scenes and relationships that were like beacons of light- the relationship between one of the two main characters, Max and his older sister and how they went against the rules and the funny teasing of their younger sister.
There is not one bit of this book I would change.
‘A Berlin Love Song’ is a sweet, heartfelt story that pulls on your heartstrings. It’s a slow burner but the best books always are. I liked the style of writing- it reminded me a little of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, especially the parts where a German phrase was said and then explained. Max and Lili’s love story is one I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
A beautiful story- I flew through the pages. I loved every page of this book- from the very first line to the very last I fell in love with the setting, story and characters. This book had a bit of everything and was the perfect blend of a historical and romance novel. All the characters were magically brought to life and I became so engrossed in their stories that I could effortlessly empathise and connect with them. I would rate this book highly as I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
Stories like this remind me that war is a tragedy; tearing family’s and lives apart. I recommend this to lovers of Anne Frank’s Diary. Tale of forbidden love between a Romani gypsy girl and German boy during the Second World War. Every time I read a book set in any war I end up crying my eyes out, and as I never learn, this was the same. It was fascinating to learn about the Romani Gypsy culture and how they were horrifically treated, and killed by the Nazis. Story’s like this remind me that war is a tragedy; tearing family’s and lives apart.