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Shadows of Berlin

A Novel

by David R. Gillham

Shadows of Berlin by David R. Gillham X
Shadows of Berlin by David R. Gillham
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    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 416 pages

    Jan 24, 2023, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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A Story of Terror and Hope
Shadows of Berlin by David R. Gillham, like The Mayfair Bookshop by Eliza Knight, is not completely a WWII novel. Both books, though, are rooted in WWII and forward.

David R. Gillham worked in the book business before turning to writing historical fiction himself. He had studied screenwriting before writing fiction. He has published three books: City of Women, Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank, and, most recently, Shadows of Berlin.

Shadows of Berlin opens in NYC in 1955 by introducing readers to Rachel Perlman, married to Aaron Perlman. The two are very much in love despite Aaron’s mother’s unhappiness at Aaron’s choice of wife.

In the beginning, I found Rachel to be full of complaints and distrustful of herself. Rachel’s conversations with her dead mother reminded me somewhat of a contemporary story, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. In both stories, the absent mothers provide the two daughters much angst for quite different reasons.

As I found myself impatient with Rachel, I stopped to think for a moment. At that point, I realized that the experiences she had during WWII as a Jewish girl and in danger from all corners would certainly entitle her to her fears even though she has survived the war. She has lost all of her family except Uncle Fritz, who, though kind, does use Rachel as an ATM much of the time. Aaron distrusts Fritz and resents the money Rachel gives him.

Readers quickly learn of Lavinia Morgenstern-Landau, Rachel’s mother, who was a talented portrait artist. Rachel, herself, has inherited this talent, but she distrusts herself too much to begin painting again. Her psychiatrist suggests that returning to her painting again could be therapeutic. Rachel disagrees.

Shadows of Berlin takes readers through Rachel’s journey from the horrors of war into a new life in NYC. Rachel must come to terms about how she has managed to survive the war and has now arrived in NYC to start a new life. Other stories explore this issue of what one must do to keep body and soul together when faced with unimaginable choices.

Because of Uncle Fritz, Rachel discovers a self-portrait her mother painted before the war. It is now in the hands of a pawnbroker who wants $50 for the painting. That sum is out of Rachel’s reach unless she can find a way to get the money and purchase the painting which means so much to her since it is a connection to her mother.

Clearly, Shadows of Berlin will generate in-depth discussions in book clubs. Issues such as love, forgiveness, survival, and hope will give book club members plenty to discuss. Rachel has every opportunity to find happiness in her new life. That’s another point of discussion.

I did like Shadows of Berlin. Wasn't sure at first but as I continued I liked it - I have read many books dealing with the Holocaust and the camps - this one was from a different perspective. Rachel came to Manhattan as a displaced Jewish immigrant who managed to survive WWII. Her Uncle Fritz fled with her. She had hoped she could forget the horrors of what she saw and had to do to survive in Germany., She met and married Aaron who tried to help her but it was a hard memory to set aside. Her memories were not going away. It was something she had to do on her own. Good story - good writing.

Angry Characters
I feel compelled to speak about the tone of this historical novel. The young woman from Berlin and her American husband, living in Manhattan, are an argumentative couple. Both Rachel and Aaron are not likable characters. Rachel’s cranky uncle is also a postwar refugee in New York City. When the three characters speak and interact with each other, they are very opinionated and contrary. These contentious, negative relationships made the story less enjoyable for me. But it did not stop me from finishing the novel, because I wanted to know what secrets Rachel was carrying so deeply in her soul.

The story focuses on Rachel’s inabilities to recover from harsh treatment when she lived in Berlin as a child and teenager during World War II. The book was not an upbeat experience and the life of Rachel Perlman was troubling. That’s probably the point of the novel: Some people never totally recover from the trauma of their past.

This book was hard to read. I did feel sorry for Rachel, but I wish she had been more honest with her therapist. Perhaps if she told him how she honestly felt, perhaps she could have been helped.
What happened to her in Berlin was horrible. No wonder she had survivors guilt!! Also, she certainly didn't have a loving relationship with her Mother. I didn't like her Uncle. I felt he wasn't helpful to her & used her.
Sometimes I had sympathy for Rachel's husband, Other times I wanted him to be kinder to her. Actually, I was surprised he stayed with her.
Two things that bothered me in the book, the German and Yiddish languages that wasn't translated. There were times that I thought,"what the hick are they talking about?" Also, the ending of the book. After she becomes pregnant, suddenly she is okay?? What did I miss? One minute she is hating herself for what she did in the war and the next minute, she is happy and looking forward to being a Mother.
I have loaned the book to a fellow reader to get her opinion.
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