The Escape by Clare Harvey - book review: An enthralling and thought-provoking read for winter days
As the Berlin Wall falls amid chaotic scenes in 1989, a young English woman flees through the rubble and into the East.
Just like her German grandmother over forty years earlier, Miranda Wade is on the run and as their stories entwine, dark secrets from the past are slowly but surely revealed.
Ex-Army wife turned author Clare Harvey’s thrilling tales of wartime romance and drama – which include The Gunner Girl, The English Agent and The Night Raid – are all inspired by real events and real-life people who experienced the years of conflict.
The Escape, an emotionally charged and multi-layered thriller set between two timelines, is rooted in the moving memoir of a young German woman who fell in love with an escaping British prisoner of war in January 1945.
And it’s a powerful and gripping story, a fast-moving drama that cleverly harnesses the turmoil in Germany as the Second World War ended and the Iron Curtain fell, with the extraordinary events of 1989 when the Berlin Wall was breached and the curtain finally began to rise again.
In Germany in January, 1945, there’s ‘a taste in the air, thin and salty: fear.’ Nineteen-year-old Detta Bruncel works as a translator for a Nazi-run labour camp for French workers in the Silesian town of Oppeln and everyone knows the Russians are heading towards them.
At their home in the village of ?osiów, Detta and her mother are trying desperately to live normal lives but fear rumours about the treatment of women by the Red Army. When a group of exhausted British prisoners of war, being force-marched westwards by Nazi guards, passes through the village, Detta is drawn to the gaze of a tall young man.
The ‘tiny blue sparks’ of his eyes create a sensation inside her, ‘like numb-cold fingers thrust in front of an open fire.’ Little does she know that the next day she will meet the man, Warrant Office Tom Jenkins, after receiving an urgent message to contact the local priest. He is harbouring a group of escaped British PoWs in the manse and wants to know if Detta can help.
Fast forward to 1989 and Miranda Wade is a 19-year old photography student in London, in thrall to her older boyfriend, a journalist called Quill. In November, the fall of the Berlin Wall is all over the news and Quill asks Miranda to go with him to Germany to cover the event.
Miranda hopes that working together in Berlin will help cement the cracks in her troubled relationship with Quill, but one night his behaviour spills over into shocking violence and Miranda ends up fleeing through the rubble of the Berlin Wall and into the East.
As she travels further, she begins to suspect she is being followed by the Stasi secret police. If she goes on, she worries that she will be taken into custody and be accused of spying, but if she turns back, it means returning to Quill who has her passport.
An old postcard photograph of the village where her grandmother was born offers a solution and she tells people that she is going to find her family in the East. The church and the manse, near where her grandmother once lived, are still standing and soon the secrets of the past begin to unfold…
Harvey is an astute and perceptive writer and this superbly atmospheric and richly detailed story is steeped in all the uncertainty and danger of wartime, and the chaos of social and political upheaval, as we weave between the two tumultuous timelines.
As always, Harvey’s research is immaculate and we feel the bitter, numbing cold and freezing snow beneath our feet as we travel through the winter-bare Silesian plains and experience the fears and privations of refugees fleeing the horrors inflicted by the tail end of the Nazi regime and the incoming Red Army.
But at the heart of this compelling, romantic and very human story are two women from the same family – but over forty years apart – whose lives are turned upside down by events beyond their control; ordinary women called on to do extraordinary things.
An enthralling and thought-provoking read for winter days.
(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)