book review: two brothers by ben elton

This book was sent to me by Random House Australia. I have been asked to write a review and my review is truthful to my opinion of the book.

two-brothers

There is something about European history, specifically German and Russian history, that fascinates me. It may be the fact that it’s centuries older than Australian history, but it’s just so rich and there are so many stories. It’s the Second World War I find to be the most interesting, mainly because in schools, we don’t learn much about it with the exception of learning that Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews.

We learn a lot about World War 1, but to me, it’s not nearly as interesting as World War 2. In WW2, you have characters like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. You have examples of true cruelty. It’s really hard to imagine what it would have been like to live through WW2. In Two Brothers by Ben Elton, we get a glimpse.

Set mostly in Berlin, Germany from 1920 to 1945 (with snippets in England in the late 1950s), Two Brothers focuses on the Stengel family. When Wolfgang and Freida are pregnant with twins in 1920, she is convinced she is carrying two boys. When one of them is stillborn and there is a male child left orphaned in the same hospital, Freida and Wolfgang decide to adopt him as their own and raise the boys as twins. The only problem is one of them is Jewish and one of them is not. This shouldn’t be a problem, but when Hitler and the National Socialist Party gains prominence, it all comes down to blood.

The story follows the lives of Otto and Paulus, the Stengel twins and their love for the same girl, the beautiful Dagmar Fischer. Dagmar is a rich Jewish girl as her parents own the glamourous Fischer’s department store. When Dagmar starts music lessons with Wolfgang, a jazz musician, she bewitches the boys. There is also Silke, the Ayran daughter of the maid the Stengel’s employ for many years. Together, the four of them make up the Saturday Club. Dagmar relishes in the affections of the Stengel twins while Silke stands on the sidelines, frustrated that the twins don’t find the same favour in her.

In early 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, things changed. Suddenly, people who had grown up in Germany for years were considered unclean and undesirable all because they were of Jewish descent. Upstanding citizens were treated like vermin. They were kicked and hit and brutalized by Hitler and his men.

When members of the SA attack Dagmar and her parents outside their department store, Paulus and Otto save Dagmar and swear to themselves that they will always protect her. Then starts a decade long battle to win the affections of Dagmar and protect her from harm. Eventually, it comes out that one of the twins isn’t Jewish and everything changes.

While you know to a certain extent how bad things were for Jews living in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s the little details that Elton presents that start to show you what it would have been like. For instance, I had no idea that Jews weren’t allowed to swim at public pools or the beach, or that after a certain amount of time, they weren’t allowed to own phones lest they communicate.

Elton paints a picture that makes me so angry because I know that it’s all based on true events. It makes me wish that what I was reading was completely fictionalized but I know that it’s not.

Truth be told, I couldn’t put down this book. I wanted to keep reading and was actually sad when it was over. I ignored the people around me by curling up with this book because I loved it so much. You care what happens to the Stengel family and Silke and even Dagmar even though she actually comes across as a bit of a spoilt brat. That surprised me, that I could read about a character who was Jewish living in Germany at that time and find her irritating and a little bit selfish. I’m not sure if Elton intended that, but if he did, he did very well.

The author’s note at the end of the book explains that Two Brothers is somewhat inspired by what Elton’s grandparents and father went through in Germany when Hitler gained power. If you enjoy historical fiction, this is most certainly the book for you. If you enjoy stories of love triangles and, to a certain extent, unrequited love, I think you’ll enjoy this book as well.

Two Brothers is a fantastic read and I want to share it with everyone. It’s the one thing about eBooks that frustrate me ‑ I can’t lend you a good book without giving you my whole device. But one thing is for sure, I will be buying a paperback copy of Two Brothers so I can lend it to everyone I know.

You can buy Two Brothers from Random House Australia here.

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3 comments

  1. Hannie · February 6, 2013

    I agree! History at school was kind of sucky but there is something about WW2 that fascinates me. I watched a documentary in the Summer called Hitlers Children or something like that and it was all about the children and grandchildren who’s parents had been part of the SS, Gestapo or The Third Reich. There was a lady who commented about going by her mothers maiden name or something like that just to avoid the stigma associated with her father’s surname.

    A year or so go my housemate and I watched The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and we were in pieces.

    I also read Making History by Stephen Fry – part if which poses the question in a way of “What if you could go back in time to before Hitler was born and stop him being born in the first place?” In the story a “equally bad” dictator rises up, takes over and rather than the Germans losing they actually win and end up taking over most of Europe. It was kinda twisted but did give someone’s imaginings to the question.

    • moniquefischle · February 6, 2013

      It’s just so interesting, isn’t it? That documentary sounds so interesting! My Dad has a book called “Born Guilty” (I think) about the children of Nazi’s and all the stigma they faced. My heritage is German and my last name gives that away and people often joke and make comments about Germans. It’s often said in jest but there is still an element of truth behind it.

      I read The Boy In The Striped Pyjama’s a few years ago and I’ve seen the movie three times, I’ve never been more distressed watching a movie in my life. It’s so upsetting.

      I might check that book out, I love Stephen Fry, fascinating man. There was a story somewhat similar to that in 11.22.63 by Stephen King about stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating JFK and it showed how different the world would be if it had been stopped but how it wasn’t necessarily better.

      Definitely read Two Brothers if you haven’t already, it’s fantastic!

      • Hannie · February 7, 2013

        I’m nearly completely English but have a little bit of Irish in me. Kinda boring being just one nationality especially given the office I work in – three of my colleagues are of Indian descent and one of those spent most of her childhood in Germany.

        The end of Boy in SPs is just so sad! I was shouting at the TV telling him to get out and funnily enough it didn’t work!

        I have a TBR list that’s longer than my arm but I’ll add it on 🙂

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