Catherine Hokin explores the shadows of World War II throughout the Hanni Winter series, and the third novel, The Girl in the Photo, continues this trend. Here Hanni’s story continues when her husband, Freddy, recognises the face of his sister, lost to the Nazis, in her photography collection. This sparks a search for the little girl that takes us back to Theresienstadt.
The Girl in the Photo begins as a dual timeline as the story is brought up to date. While Freddy searches for his sister, the complications of finding one lost child intensifies as Hanni tries to juggle secrets of her own. Forcing Hanni to delve into her past as her lies begin to unravel and the new life she forges for herself begins to crumble.
One of the most impactful parts of this novel is the history Hokin attempts to bring to light. She reminds us of the millions of people, including children, who were displaced and highlighted the desperation of those children and surviving family members once they were lost within the system. The hopelessness Freddy faces with so many barriers to finding Renny in the sea of children who seem to disappear is an emotionally impactful reminder of continued loss years after the war’s end.
Hokin exploring the events surrounding Theresienstadt was a choice I appreciated. It is a fascinating example of wartime activity that is rarely discussed. Theresienstadt was a settlement serving as a transit labour camp and used as the staging for a Nazi propaganda ‘spa town.’ It is an essential piece of history concerning the functioning of concentration camps, covered respectfully. The exploration of this propaganda is well-researched and built into fiction in a way that allows for a balance often lost by other authors and is a testament to Hokin’s skill and dedication to her works.
As the third book in a series, although it is an enjoyable read as a stand-alone, reading the earlier books will likely improve the experience. The marriage between Freddy, a Jewish survivor of the war who lost his entire family, and our main character, Hanni, feels slightly uncomfortable sometimes. As the novel continues, there are regular reminders that Hanni is the daughter of the man who likely ordered the death of Freddy’s family and someone who actively profited off the war. Throughout the book, she lies to Freddy about her identity and hides her involvement in Theresienstadt. As those secrets unravelled, it was not easy to side with or respond to her. The relationship between the pair may be more understandable if followed through the development of earlier books.
Hokin does not attempt to sugarcoat the themes prevalent here. There is no attempt to humanise those involved or events from the war, whether that is the memories of them or continuing fallout of rebuilding. The real history behind this story and the unwavering honesty from Hokin is at the heart of this novel and, most importantly, the story’s greatest strength.