I’ve been avoiding writing this review ever since I finished Rose Under Fire, which was a little under a month ago >.< I have a lot of mixed feelings about this novel, some good and some bad. I wanted so badly to love this book, especially because Code Name Verity is one of the best books I’ve ever read, but maybe because I went in expecting so much, I have to say I was disappointed.
There is no doubt that this novel is technically brilliant – the writing is (mostly) superb, the research and effort the author put into her story pay off in spades and the supporting characters are vivid, interesting and utterly heartbreaking. The story of Rose Under Fire takes place in the same time-frame as Code Name Verity, featuring characters from the first book and an overlapping storyline. Taking place maybe a year(?) after the events of Code Name Verity, WWII is still raging. Maddie, who is one of two main protagonists in the first book, is engaged to be married and is a part of the ATA – Air Transport Auxiliary. Rose Justice, the protagonist for Rose Under Fire, is an American girl who joins the ATA on the side of the Allies. Much of the first part of the novel builds up Rose as a naive, sheltered girl bubbling over with optimism. The war is just an event to her – characters like Maddie, who have experienced the full tragedy of war, are sympathetic to Rose but unsurprisingly she is unable to truly connect with the full horror of the war. As an American, we see another view of WWII – Rose spends nearly half the war on American soil, distant from the bombs and death. She writes poetry and talks about boys, flies planes and believes that she is on the right side, fighting a worthy battle.
Wein’s talent for writing, I think, is brilliant in this way. She perfectly embodies the traits of a person untouched by tragedy and builds it up to the point at which, when things change so shockingly, it takes your breath away. Rose, while trying to divert a bomb in her plane, is found and captured by German troops. She is taken to Ravensbruck, the infamous women’s prison and finds herself imprisoned with all kinds of women – prisoners of war, Jews, Gypsies, political prisoners and many more. Wein illustrates the bleak horror of the place – every prisoner must wear a coloured triangle with a letter displaying their nationality. Rose notes that among all the prisoners, Jews were some of the worst treated. Rose becomes friends with the ‘Rabbits’, women who were experimented upon by the Germans and are disfigured permanently as a result. Through the most awful of circumstances, including torture, systematic killing, and starvation, these women endure. Rose, along with some of her friends, eventually escapes the prison but is scarred by her experiences there. Throughout her imprisonment, we witness the loss of her innocence and optimism – her poetry, previously uplifting and occasionally silly, becomes dark and tragic. Wein excels at developing this character – Rose is a survivor; she lives through the worst experience a human being could endure but is forever changed by it.
Wein doesn’t end her novel with Rose’s escape – the reader experiences Rose suffering severe PTSD, and continues until after the war ends. It is at this point that I think some of the most powerful scenes take place – Rose is called as a witness during the Nuremberg Trials, the famous trials in which prominent Nazi leaders were tried for crimes against humanity. Wein includes several scenes from these trials in the novel, and it is harrowing to read – she includes real people, Nazis and witnesses alike, who testified at the trials and has Rose experience and witness moments which really happened – people taking off their headphones or crying; the defendants ranging from emotionless to tearful, when survivors from the concentration camps testified about the truth of the extermination, starvation and brutality they were made to suffer. It is ultimately haunting, the sensitivity in which Wein handles the true stories that she weaves into her own fictional account, and it is made more so by her decision to include a list of the names of the women who died at Ravensbruck in her novel.
All of this does surely make for a brilliant novel, but I have to say that in other ways Rose Under Fire really let me down. Code Name Verity, a deeply tragic and beautiful story about the ambiguity between friendship and love, is dismissed in this book – Maddie – wonderful, amazing, tragic Maddie, is reduced to a character who exists on the periphery, talking about marriage and how her best friend would never have endured what Rose did. Despite the fact that Code Name Verity is about clever deception, strength in times of horror and fear, and the kind of loyalty that requires the strongest of wills. I don’t understand why in order to make Rose seem more heroic, it felt necessary to undermine Julia’s own struggles.
I also have a huge issue with the overwhelming heterosexuality in this book – Maddie and Julia’s ambiguous relationship in this novel is simply a close friendship. Which would be fine if the first novel had been written that way but it wasn’t. There’s no room for interpretation in Rose Under Fire in relation to Maddie and Julia, and that infuriates me because Code Name Verity is one of the very few novels that so brilliantly blur the lines between romance and friendship with a same-sex relationship. Did someone decide that Code Name Verity was simply too ‘gay’? Because Rose Under Fire is incredibly hetero-normative. For example, every relationship in this second book is labelled – everyone is ‘family’, ‘boyfriend, ‘husband’, ‘friend’ and this occurs in spite of the fact that Ravensbruck had many instances of same-sex relationships blooming. We don’t see any of that in Rose Under Fire and I don’t understand why. Both novels are written about women and the stories of women. It stands to reason that not all those women were heterosexual, and yet their voices go unheard. It just makes me so disappointed.
As a minor point, I also found it difficult to connect with Rose. She is ultimately a brilliant character by the end of the novel, but it takes almost a hundred pages of the story for her to get to the point where I started to care about her. Her voice doesn’t pull you in from the very first page – there is just too much of her child-like naivete coupled with a frankly awkward American voice, which didn’t read smoothly to me. I kept stumbling over the odd phrasings and slang that Rose uses frequently, and it took me out of the novel rather than pulling me further in. I appreciate why Rose was the way she was at the beginning of the novel but there was only so much I could tolerate of the endless poetry about things I didn’t care about.
I do think Rose Under Fire is a great book, and it deserves to be read and appreciated. Wein manages to be sensitive about the subject matter with her beautiful prose and impeccable research. It is just a shame that some of the more problematic elements of the novel kept me from enjoying this as much as I wanted to.