Phyllis Edgerly Ring The Munich Girl:
a novel of the legacies that outlast war
Whole Sky Books 2015
It is the mid 1990s. Anna is stuck in a loveless and childless marriage with Lowell. In the New Hampshire house left to her by her mother she feels like a mere adjunct to his academic life, his forthcoming study on the Second World War and his publishing business which issues The Fighting Chance, a military history magazine. An adjunct, that is, until he invites her to contribute an article about Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; it is to furnish the female angle for the forthcoming special issue of the magazine designed to coincide with the publication of Lowell’s book. And it is at this point that everything changes for her: she gets a chance to become a butterfly on the wing instead of a lowly caterpillar crawling beneath.
She meets the newly hired editor, Johannes — Hannes, as he calls himself — who provides the sympathy and enthusiasm that she needs for her task, in contrast to Lowell and his curmudgeonly attitude. As she delves deeper it emerges that her mother Peggy — half-English, half-German — actually knew Eva Braun, the Munich girl of the title. As her relationship with Lowell worsens she heads off to the National Archives in Washington to immerse herself in Braun’s photographic legacy which had survived the war. She is also subject to vivid dreams — are they somehow prognostications, in some sense intuitive, or some atavistic memory? And then comes the fateful flight to Germany, leading to revelations that go to the roots of her existence.
The Munich Girl is a skilful blend of fiction and history, adroitly blurring the boundaries between the two. A burgeoning but chaste romance furnishes the frame for a story that sensitively explores the nature of Braun’s relationship with Hitler without condoning the evil that he unleashed on the world. The three women’s lives — one with the Führer, another with the German Resistance and the third fifty years after the war — form parallels as Anna rediscovers a past that she had all but forgotten when living across the Atlantic.
As well as examining close relationships the novel revolves around symbols which underscore the significances that humans attach to life events. There is Eva’s monogram of an intertwined E and B resembling both a butterfly and a vierblättriges Kleeblatt or four leaf clover; the latter’s often regarded as emblematic of faith, hope, love and luck, the former a symbol of metamorphosis. Then there is the poorly executed portrait of Eva by an admirer, a painting that has been in Anna’s mother’s possession since the war. Photographs recur over and over as vital links with past lives (they also punctuate the text); fire appears as if a kind of baptism to a new life; and dreams form another leitmotif, seeming to blend the past and future as dreams so often do.
I found this a hugely satisfying novel. Beautifully written, but with its art skilfully concealed, it draws the reader in with a series of well-defined episodes. At the heart of it are the notes — narratives, really — that Peggy Adler kept of her intermittent meetings with the Munich girl. Occasionally Peggy even imagines events from Eva’s point of view, as a good author can, and while at first I found this slightly jarring it soon felt entirely natural. Phyllis Ring handles her characters sensitively, particularly those Germans who, especially during the latter stages of the war, suffered awful deprivations; and she even makes of Braun a sympathetic character. Altogether it’s an impressive piece of writing.
Essentially though this novel is about love; and it’s also about coming home. And of course sometimes the two can be the same thing.
The Munich Girl was sent to me for review but the opinions here are entirely my own and I was under no obligation to provide a positive assessment. Coincidentally, with the author living in New Hampshire and the story partially set in that state this also fits in with the Reading New England Challenge which encourages readers to explore books set in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut during 2016.