#BookReview Stella by Takis Würger, trans. by Liesl Schillinger @ReadersFirst1 @GrovePressUK

StellaAbout the Book

In 1942, Friedrich, an even-keeled but unworldly young man, arrives in Berlin from bucolic Switzerland with dreams of becoming an artist. At a life drawing class, he is hypnotized by the beautiful model, Kristin, who soon teaches the naïve Friedrich how to take care of himself in a city filled with danger, escorting him to secret jazz clubs where they drink cognac, dance and kiss.

But as the months pass, the mood in the city darkens yet further, with the Nazi Party tightening their hold on the everyday life of all Berliners. Kristin’s loyalties are unclear until she shares her astonishing secret: that her real name is Stella, and that she is Jewish, passing for Aryan. Friedrich comforts her, but he soon realises that Stella’s control of the situation is rapidly slipping out of her grasp, and that the Gestapo have an impossible power over her.

As Friedrich confronts Stella’s unimaginable choices, he finds himself woefully unprepared for the history he is living through.

Format: Paperback (208 pages)     Publisher: Grove Press
Publication date: 4th March 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

As the author reveals in the afterword, although many of the characters are fictional, Stella herself is based on a real historical character.  And Takis Würger’s personal connection to the story that unfolds is underlined by the book’s dedication to his great-grandfather, killed by the Nazis in 1941.

Arriving in the city of Berlin in January 1942, Friedrich falls immediately under the spell of the woman he initially knows as Kristin, but whose real name is later revealed to be Stella Goldschlag.  It’s no wonder Friedrich is dazzled by Stella; she’s beautiful, spirited and uninhibited.  Through her, Friedrich meets the equally larger-than-life Tristan von Appen, one of whose idiosyncrasies is his habit of addressing Friedrich as ‘old boy’. (It reminded me rather of Jay Gatsby’s habit of addressing Nick Carraway as ‘old sport’ in The Great Gatsby.) Soon Friedrich finds himself rubbing shoulders with senior Nazis at a garden party where the champagne flows, music plays as the guests enjoy a lavish buffet. As Friedrich reflects, ‘You could have forgotten we were in wartime’.  

The story unfolds month by month with each chapter commencing with something akin to a news report in which mundane items appear side-by-side with more chilling material.  So, for example, May 1942’s report includes the news that Bing Crosby and other musicians have recorded the song “White Christmas” in New York, the monthly fat ration has been cut and there has been an assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich.  Many chapters also include extracts from witness statements concerning Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps as a result of being denounced by informers, the relevance of which only gradually becomes apparent.  

As the months go by, Friedrich slowly awakens to the realities of what is taking place in Berlin. “Every day in Germany I had been going through this, acting as if I could live with what was happening to the Jews in Germany. I had put up with the flags with swastikas and with the people greeting me and roaring at me with their right arms outstretched.” The revelation of the nature of Stella’s involvement sees him attempt to protect her. This leads to a surreal scene in which Friedrich is forced to play a game of cards in the office of Dobberke, the head of a detention centre, whilst negotiating a deal for the release of prisoners involving bacon.  

Duality and performance are themes of the novel. So while the Reich outlaws “degenerate” art, Nazi officers visit illegal jazz clubs where the music of Jewish composers is played.  And while the citizens of Berlin endure food rationing, hard cash can buy the finest luxuries for those in the know.  Stella remains an enigma, and the consummate performer.  Even Friedrich comes to recognise this fact. “This woman contained so many roles within herself: the artist’s model, the singer with the breathy voice, the beauty in my bathtub, the penitent, the liar, the victim.  Stella Goldschlag, the woman I loved.” 

Stella is a powerful story of naivety, betrayal and the limits of love which also explores the impossible choices people are forced to make in times of war. 

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Grove Press and Readers First.

In three words: Compelling, immersive, emotional 

Try something similar: Cesare by Jerome Charyn

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Takis WurgerAbout the Author

Takis Würger is a reporter working for the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Named one of Medium’s “Top 30 Journalists under 30,” alongside other accolades, Würger’s work as a journalist has taken him to Afghanistan, Libya, Mexico, and Ukraine. His first novel, The Club, won the lit.Cologne debut prize in Germany. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

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