The story of two young women in occupied Poland during the Second World War, who have to hold the remnants of their small family together. Their father is dead and their mother not far from crossing that particular threshold herself.
Mother has held on to a secret for an entire lifetime, a secret that is a death sentence for her children in this particular climate and period in time.
The way the Ruth and Helena perceive their situation changes drastically after Helena inadvertently learns the truth. Suddenly past behaviour, the choice of hospital for their mother and the lack of relatives around them takes on a different meaning altogether.
Identical twins are usually connected in a way other siblings aren’t, but I don’t get that feeling from Helena and Ruth. There is jealousy, spite and a need to own what the other sister has and feel what the other sister is feeling, but close they are not.
They have been drawn apart by the heavy burden of responsibility they are both carrying upon their young shoulders. Ruth has become the surrogate mother to her younger siblings and Helena has become the surrogate father and provider to them all.
Helena seems to step away from the bubble of family to develop her own identity and in a sense she does so in a way that is detrimental to her siblings. She risks her life and their lives by hiding a fugitive, by hoarding food and by keeping secrets.
The interaction between Sam and Helena is perhaps a little on the overzealous side and fits uncomfortably into the seriousness of the setting, however they are both still very young. The bravado of children in the midst of the bones and ashes of the dead.
The tragedy that leads to the catastrophic chain of events isn’t the betrayal, as far as I am concerned. The fact both Ruth and Helena choose to lie to protect their siblings instead of telling them the truth, especially the older ones, eventually leads to a fatal misunderstanding.
The betrayal plays a pivotal role in the redemption and the guilt. It also serves as a reminder of what might have been. I would go as far as to say that perhaps one of the characters in the book was possibly relieved at the outcome and reluctant to take care of the ensuing consequences.
Jenoff manages to capture the complexity of family relationships and the tentacles of support it can offer. She does this without painting the picture with sugary sweetness and puppy dog tails. Simultaneously Jenoff creates a realistic scenario of sibling rivalry, the struggle to leave the nest and the reality of being a parent instead of an elder sibling to younger children.
It is harsh, cruel, unfair and emotional. It is the silent fate of many casualties of occupied countries, the people who are never counted or heard from, because the past is often left buried forever.
This is a story, which is likely to provoke emotive responses, regardless of whether it is due to the historical setting or the choices made by characters. It is also written in a way that is suitable for younger readers who are perhaps interested in historical fiction with a healthy portion of romance.