This powerful novel about two German teenagers robbed of their youth by the Second World War was partly inspired by the author's family history, and certainly the train of events that links Ilse and Nicolai seems too bizarre and terrible to have been invented.
Ilse's father is Jewish and her "Aryan" mother, Lore, sends her to relatives in Morocco in the spring of 1939; in a matter of months they send her back. She joins her father living underground in Paris; he foils her mother's plans to arrange new papers for her. They flee to Marseilles during the Occupation, and find refuge in a brothel where all networks meet: Resistance, black market, suspected informers.
Back in Germany, Lore is housekeeper for a wealthy family whose younger son, an unwilling Hitler Youth recruit, learns some of her story and becomes smitten with both mother and absent daughter. Nicolai's family represents a believable hotchpotch of values: while his father and grandmother hate the Nazi regime and pin their hopes on the triumph of good in some far distant future, his brother is in the SS and his mother thinks only of her social status and her lovers. Meanwhile, the Hitler Youth influence over Nicolai takes an unexpected turn at a training camp where he meets a working-class boy who encourages him in the decadent arts of photography and jazz.
For both, the odds against staying alive and retaining some sense of self are ever-increasing. Secrecy and subversion are ingrained in Ilse and become habitual for Nicolai, but it seems impossible that Ilse, in particular, will survive. More of the story to be told when the book ends, and some has vanished with the letters Ilse's father systematically destroys. The tension is unbearable as Ilse counts the lucky mother-of-pearl buttons on the cardigan that Lore knitted to send her off to Morocco, and we can only hope that they will do the trick.