Review of ‘Trümmerkind’ by Mechtild Borrmann

Review of ‘Trümmerkind’ by Mechtild Borrmann

Post-war Hamburg. A city in ruins. A little boy finds something unexpected among the rubble, and a crime story set against the backdrop of a ruined Germany unfolds…

I’m happy to say that I recently (finally!) joined the Goethe-Institut library in London, so now I can borrow all the wonderful German books they have there. I marked the occasion by taking out a couple of books by Mechtild Borrmann, a German crime writer whose work I discovered back in 2015 through my work with the magazine New Books in German, when her incredible novel Die andere Hälfte der Hoffnung (‘The Other Half of Hope’) was featured in NBG. She has had a couple of books translated into English already (Silence and To Clear the Air were both translated by Aubrey Botsford and published by Amazon Crossing) but so far, Trümmerkind (‘Child of the Rubble’) is only available in German.

Trümmerkind begins in Hamburg, in the winter of 1947. Hanno and his younger sister Wiebke are searching desperately through the post-war rubble for anything they can use as firewood or exchange for food on the black market. But what they find is completely unexpected a dead woman lying naked in the rubble and a small boy nearby, dressed in fine clothes, apparently either lost or abandoned. They take the boy home and their mother, Agnes, adopts him as her own.

The story of Agnes and her family alternates with that of Anna, a teacher living in Cologne in the early 1990s. When her ex-husband suggests she investigate her mother’s old property in the Uckermark, which was occupied by the Russians at the end of the Second World War, to see if they have any remaining claim over it, Anna decides to go ahead. She keeps it a secret from her mother, who has always refused to talk about her past and has forbidden Anna from asking questions. But when Anna goes to the Uckermark to visit the house, a conversation with her mother’s old neighbour starts to shed new light and cast some even darker shadows over Anna’s hidden family past. As the story takes her to Hamburg, she realises that her mother may have kept more secrets than Anna could ever have suspected.

Mechtild Borrmann has a real talent for combining well-researched, authoritative historical writing with a gripping plot filled with twists and turns. In Germany, her books have spent weeks on bestseller lists and she has been nominated for and awarded various prizes, and I can absolutely see why her characters are always very satisfyingly complex, and she has a knack for bringing the post-war period to life in a highly engaging way, as well as exploring the weight of the past and the struggles that so many have faced trying to come to terms with their own actions as well as the actions of others. Inter-generational family relationships are often a central theme, along with the question of how well we can ever truly know our parents…

If, like me, you enjoy a good plot, are interested in life in Germany during and after the Second World War, and you like a dual-timeline narrative, then these are the books for you! I can’t recommend Mechtild Borrmann highly enough, and I just know that whatever she writes will keep me hooked to the very last page.

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