I picked up this book on the recommendation of my mum. She spent months telling me that when I had finished whatever book I was reading at the moment, that I must read Two Brothers next.
“Yeah, yeah, sure, mum” as I pick up one of my old books that I had probably read about twelve times. Two weeks of reading on my fairly short bus and train journeys two and from work and it was suddenly over.
Two Brothers is a historical novel set between Berlin of the 1920’s and the 1940’s with the ‘present’ taking place in 1950’s London. Ben Elton bases the roots of the story on his own personal family history which he explains at the end of the book, and follows the childhood of Otto and Paulus; the titular two brothers who are born at the same time as the birth of the Nazi party.
As Otto and Paulus are brought up as young Jews in Berlin to a musician father and a doctor mother, they are witness to the changes that overcame Europe in the twentieth century leading to the Second World War. Both brothers having different strengths and temperaments, they complement each other in getting through their childhood scrapes but the one thing they have in common is their love for Dagmar; the daughter of a wealthy Jewish shop owner. Their love for each other and for Dagmar leads them through the beginnings of the war and eventually different paths that bring us to the present in post war Britain.
The book starts well, introducing the reader to the main characters and showing their positives as well as their flaws and still managing to make you care for them all in their own way. There are many twists and turns in the story that made me turn back a page to find out if maybe I had misread something, which instead of being annoying just made me more eager to find out what had really happened in the Stengel boys past. The style of writing made an already difficult subject such as the rise of the Nazi’s and the ensuing nightmare that unfolded round the world, sometimes harder to follow with the levels of subterfuge played out by certain characters. I found the Stengel twins to be likeable, each in their own way through both their strengths and failings but Dagmar was very hard to like from the outset (though this is clearly intended). My sympathies lay mostly with the twins mother Frieda, a woman who made great strides in her education and a career in medicine while raising a family and making a difference to the community, both German and Jewish German. Her part in the tale made even more difficult knowing what fate awaits the Jewish population.
Overall, the book was an entertaining and reasonably fast paced journey through one family’s experience of the time. However, some characters ran the risk of being a caricature to deliberately ensure the readers dislike, making it hard to believe that a person could have just the one side to their personality and such a strong agenda to the detriment of those around them. The twists and turns of the identities of the main characters over the course of the time period switches also starts out at first as a clever idea but soon loses its momentum by eventually becoming a blur and almost unimportant in comparison to the events described in the 30’s and 40’s. I would recommend the book for someone looking for something that’s a bit more than just a love story set against a historical backdrop and for someone looking for an account of the different situations people in Germany faced at that time. On the other hand, I would not say that the book was a life changer as a whole, though some of the things described still give me the shivers. By all means pick up the book for an interesting read on the commute as I think it is better enjoyed in shorter bursts rather than a ‘I’ll just read a chapter before bed…and now it’s 3am…’
Where to buy: Amazon – Two Brothers by Ben Elton