Sara Young tackles both the common
and the uncommon in her first adult novel, a love
story set against the backdrop of German occupied
Holland during World War II. Fiction readers know
that the Second World War is a subject often plumbed
by novelists, as is the topic of couples forming
romantic bonds and enduring separation and danger
during wartime. These elements in themselves may be
enough to prick the interest of readers who crave a
wartime romance, but Young's tale has another
element likely to set it apart from the many choices
in this genre.
A Nazi program called "Lebensborn" designed to replenish the German army with the babies of girls pregnant by German soldiers is so central to this story that it almost acts as one of the main characters. What makes this historical element particularly interesting, besides the lure of the bizarre, is that few novelists have explored this facet of Nazi history. Young's book chronicles an element of World War II eerily opposite to the bold evil of the deportations and concentration camps of the Holocaust: a Nazi system of housing pregnant women in lavish mansions, feeding and protecting them while they wait to give birth. However, once the children are born, the Nazi machine reveals itself, separating mother from child and accepting only "perfect" newborns. As a result, My Enemy's Cradle has two potential audiences: fans of World War II romance and fans of unique historical fiction.
The novel is the story of a young woman, half-Dutch and half-Jewish, living in Holland with her aunt, uncle and cousin – a young woman struggling with her identity; with her mother's death and father's perceived abandonment; with her feelings of adoration and jealousy of her beautiful cousin, Annike; and with her unrequited love for Isaac. Cyrla's love for Isaac and her sisterly relationship with more experienced Annike also lead her to explore sexual love; the physical expression of romantic love and its stages, from curiosity to maturity, are also woven throughout the larger story.
As the novel blends well-worn themes with the unexplored, the book's characters and writing similarly vacillate between respectable and very good. Young shines when describing moments of loss and fear – the absence of a person, sexual violation, the terror of approaching childbirth under Nazi guard. At times, one wishes that the secondary characters could be given more attention, allowing the reader to explore their motivations and histories. Perhaps Young intentionally limited the reader's knowledge, not only for the sake of maintaining a swiftly moving plot, but also to put them in the same position as her main character. For Cyrla must make choices based on what she thinks she knows, taking one step at a time (as she often reminds herself in the story). As the tale unfolds and relationships are both formed and lost, Cyrla slowly discovers the influence that appearance versus reality and truth versus assumption have upon her survival – and her happiness.
My Enemy's Cradle is a good read, though there are plot elements and character interactions that may strike some as unrealistic. However, these portions do gain credibility by virtue of the unnatural setting and extreme time in which they take place. Risky decisions, compromise and relationships – both forbidden and convenient – during the German occupation are part of Cyrla's story, as they are part of World War II history.
This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the October 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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