There are many fictional accounts exploring the extreme experiences of the Second World War, but The Woman Outside the Walls brings a unique tale of survival, guilt and regret. With a dual timeline that takes place over almost 90 years, this novel follows the story of Anna, now known as Margie. Introduced as a woman trying to flee her past, we are taken back through her history to discover her struggle during, and immediately after, the war. We watch her evolve through multiple identities and names as she attempts to escape the adversity she faces.
After the death of her lover, Anna is forced to leave her home and family behind to protect the secret of her unborn child. The opportunity to work as a secretary at what she believes is a correctional prison allows her a new start. Through the hindsight of her future self, we follow Anna as she starts to recognise the realities of concentration camps and the suffering of those around her. Through this, Goldring covers Anna’s feelings of fear and powerlessness in a wonderfully nuanced way. She carefully balances the hopelessness of those in Anna’s position with the guilt of shouldering responsibility through ignorance.
The bombing of Hamburg left many adrift with no home and no contact with loved ones. After arriving back in Hamburg in search of her parents after escaping the East, Anna finds herself living with a group of orphaned children, calling themselves the Ausgebombten gang. A small group of children forced to come together under extraordinary circumstances, acting as a strong example of the lives shattered by war and the immediate aftermath.
Then, on the other side of this dual timeline is an exploration of the memories of those involved and how these memories force Anna to hold onto her fear of discovery. Hiding her past still has complications decades later, and the reaction of those around her is an examination of how modern views of historical events can overlook the intricacies of reality, notably when it comes to human behaviour and why people make the decisions they do.
What truly makes this novel special is the exploration of those small players in the Nazi regime. The people, like Anna, who ended up as secretaries, accountants, and those invisible roles that allowed the regime to work. Those who were living in fear of asking questions and challenging the system. By looking through this lens, essential questions are raised concerning how people in Germany were affected by World War II and their role in it, especially when many were trying to survive a war they never wanted.
Covering the Second World War from this perspective is not easy and requires a deep sensitivity to undertake the task correctly and respectfully. Anna is a well-developed character and because of this balance, the discussions raised, though sometimes unpleasant, are never trivialised. Goldring succeeds in this task and, in doing so, creates an impactful work of fiction.
Bethany Hall is an Editorial Assistant at Aspects of History.