Magda by Meike Ziervogel

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I’m not sure how I can across Magda by Meike Ziervogel but after watching the book trailer, I grabbed my Kindle and downloaded the book. And began reading immediately. And finished it in one afternoon (it’s a novella but that said, my kids could have been juggling knives for all I knew, I was engrossed).

Magda is a fictionalised account of the last few days of the life of Magda Goebbels, the wife of Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels and herself a prominent member of the Nazi party. Magda was mother to six children, all of whom she took into the  führerbunker in Berlin and killed. Included in this story is that of Magda’s mother, Martha, and Josef and Magda’s eldest child, 14-year-old Helga.

Now I’m afraid it’s time for a Tiffany break.

Yes – could’ve been. This story could’ve been brilliant. The concept (three points of view, three generations of mothers and daughters) is compelling. The true stories of these women are fascinating. And yet, Magda fell short for me.

Primarily, the different narratives weren’t terribly well executed. Ziervogel attempts to differentiate each character – Helga’s chapters are diary entries, Magda’s in the third person, Martha’s an interview with a Russian commissar  – but all lack consistency. There are some dream sequences thrown in and switches between first and third person, making the overall result choppy.

In addition, the voices didn’t strike me as particularly realistic –  Helga’s diary entries (addressed to ‘dear Gretchen’) were cliched –

“I am glad now that from an early age Father told me stories about old battles. Thus I know war belongs to mankind like the roots to a tree. On the other hand, I have a deep yearning for peace and harmony within me.”

and Martha seemed too ‘modern’ for an elderly woman living in the 1940s. For example, Martha says of Madga as a baby –

“She screamed from the very first day. I was dead embarrassed. You see, all of the neighbours thought there was no husband.”

‘Peace and harmony’ and ‘dead embarrassed”? Dead-set* didn’t work for me. When reading ‘fictionalised’ history, if the dialogue and thoughts of the individual characters don’t ring true, I lose confidence. The section outlining Magda’s fears for her children beyond the war is another example – it was bizarre and out-of-step with the ‘cool and remote’ direction Ziervogel had taken us with Magda.

I think the story could have been stronger if Ziervogel had given herself more room – a novel rather than a novella. There’s enough material for a fictionalised story and I wanted more of Magda. There were also brief but tantalizing glimpses of other characters – Josef Goebbels, Hitler and Eva Braun.

“There He stands before Magda, a little man on a podium who has assumed the stature of a giant using nothing but simple words and a strident voice.”

Hitler with Magda and Joseph Goebbels

And yet despite these issues, Ziervogel did what author Melanie Benjamin claims is the most gratifying thing for an historical novelist to achieve –

“…that the reader was inspired, after reading my work of fiction, to research these remarkable people’s lives further.”

Because that is exactly what I did after finishing Magda. I thought my knowledge of WWII and the Holocaust was reasonably thorough – Magda made me realise otherwise.

Ziervogel described her writing process in The Guardian – it’s worth a read.

3/5 – On the basis of the writing alone, this book would have been a two but I can’t discount it because I was engrossed and completely unsettled (and when you know the conclusion from the outset and are still engrossed, that’s an achievement).

*Modern literature reference there – Puberty Blues.

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6 responses

  1. That’s what I love most about reading historical fiction, how it inspires one to research the actual events. Most of the time it results in me being disappointed in those stories as most lean more towards the fiction side than I would prefer (although I guess it is historical FICTION, after all). I’ve never heard of this short little story though and despite your disappointment I still feel tempted to try it. I have a fascination with WWII novels but I still feel like I’m reeling from The Book Thief so maybe someday in the future. Great review. 🙂

    • Book Thief does leave you reeling. I have a few WWII novels in my reading stack at the moment, notable The Paris Architect and Unexploded. I actually don’t read a lot of historical fiction…not sure why because I usually really enjoy it when I do.

      Despite my rating, Magda was very interesting and as you can read it in an afternoon, you won’t feel as if it was a waste of time.

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