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Review: “The Words I Never Wrote”

GENINE BABAKIAN
This book cover image released by Ballantine shows "The Words I Never Wrote" by Jane Thynne. (Ballantine via AP)

“The Words I Never Wrote: a Novel,” Ballantine Books, by Jane Thynne

What is it about historical novels that open against the backdrop of Europe on the brink of World War II? We know what crisis looms, even if the characters do not, and yet we cannot get enough of the tales of destruction and survival, cowardice and heroism. “The Words I Never Wrote: a Novel” by Jane Thynne is no exception to this rule. It is a welcome addition to the wealth of literature capturing this doomed period and place.

Thynne’s new novel spins a captivating tale of two young English women – sisters caught on two opposing sides of the war. Their story opens in 1936 at the elder sister’s wedding – on the English estate where she grew up – to a German industrialist. Irene Capel, the young English bride and aspiring artist, immediately assumes a new nationality and name: Frau Weissmuller. Her life in Berlin is filled with parties and dances and endless hobnobbing with the Nazi hierarchy.

Irene is to be separated from her sister Cordelia for the first time in her life. As a parting gift, she gives Cordelia a portable typewriter – an investment, as she says, in Cordelia’s future career as a writer. Devastated by the absence of her beloved sister, Cordelia soon makes use of that typewriter, when an unexpected opportunity at the Paris Bureau of a British newspaper lands in her lap. In the meantime, the rising hostilities in Europe threaten to tear the sisters apart, both physically and emotionally.

On one level, Thynne’s novel – and the trajectory of Irene’s story in particular – reads as a cautionary tale for anyone who chooses to disregard politics. Written during a tumultuous political year in the U.K. and the U.S. in 2016, “The Words I Never Wrote” highlights the dangers of underplaying the power of divisive societal forces.

Irene may be naïve when she first arrives as a new bride to her wealthy and well-connected husband’s estate in Berlin. Yet as her artist’s eye awakens to the barbarity of the Nazi party, Irene is trapped by her circumstances – a result of her own actions. As she understands in the last days of the war: “She had the sudden vivid realization that each choice, each split-second decision she had made until that moment, was what had made her life. She had shaped her life daily, the way a painter chooses pigments and lays down one brushstroke after another on the canvas… She had, at least, been the artist of her own existence.”

The beauty of Thynne’s novel is in the details. The vivid snapshots of life in Europe leading up to, during and after the war surprise and satisfy the most devoted readers of this genre: the frosted swastika and box of glass heads of Nazi leaders that Irene’s husband brings home to decorate the Christmas tree; the LSR (Learn Russian Quickly) graffiti peppering Berlin in the last gasps of the war; the maternity wards bursting with women in labor nine months after the Russian army took Berlin, where newborns – the products of rape perpetrated by the invading forces – were wrapped in newspapers rather than blankets.

It is, ultimately, Cordelia’s tale to tell. A character who was born to question the norm and break convention. She taps away at her portable typewriter – one of the precious gifts she receives from her sister – throughout the twists and turns of this story.