Distinguised Australian author Tom Shapcott has written a readers report on ‘Ordinary Women’. In part, it says:
The story is unforgettable... the book is something that refuses to be put down. The reader is compelled to read on - with anguish, fascination and admiration. It tells the harrowing story of a Dresden family (theTraubes) from the 1930s, through the initial frightening stringencies of their experiences as an anti-Nazi family, through World War II. It climaxes in the fire-bombing of Dresden, but then moves through the subsequent period, in a long, slow aftershock and then proceeds to the dreadful last years and months of the war, the Russian conquest and the imposition of the Communist regime.
Editor and producer Sophie Hamley (HarperCollins, Penguin, Seven Network, Massive Media) was an early advocate of Kynaston’s manuscript and in support of it also wrote a reader’s report. In part, it says:
This is a truly Australian story, the tale of a migrant from an embattled land who worked hard at survival in a new, tough country. The details may change, but this is, really, the story of many migrants to this country in the last decades. Kynaston so acutely draws Australians and Australian life that one can almost smell the beer in the pubs and feel how the heat of a Melburnian summer must have felt to a young German girl.
It is also an emotionally harrowing account that the reader can literally never forget. The horror of living through the Nazi times, for just about everyone, is described in such effective detail that to read it is to feel it, painfully.
It is also the story of the indomitability of the human will and, in its way, affirmation that we are basic creatures whose most powerful instinct is to survive. Kynaston’s observations on human nature and national character of several different countries are acute.
Tom Shapcott’s Readers Report on ‘Ordinary Women’ by Edward Kynaston
This is an intensely moving and finely detailed book which is called a ‘novel’ but which is clearly based closely on authentic experience. It tells the harrowing story of a Dresden family (the Traubes) from the 1930s, through the initial frightening stringencies of their experiences, as an anti-Nazi family, through World War II. It climaxes in the fire bombing of Dresden, but then moves through the subsequent period, in a long, slow aftershock and then proceeds to the dreadful last years and months of the war, the Russian conquest and the imposition of the Communist regime. The book ends with the daughter of the Traube family (Erna Brook - she had married an Englishman, who died in the 1930s) attempting to gain refugee status for herself and her near-adolescent daughter, Anita. They finally escape to Britain, and then to Australia.
The story is told through the framework of Anita’s return in 1979 to Dresden and East Germany. Anita’s earlier life is recreated with almost ferocious intensity and pain (and the superficial numbness that suppresses deep trauma).
The 1979 return journey enables the author to paint searing pictures of Anita’s encounter with life behind the Iron Curtain and the superficial amenity of her contemporary Australian existence, but it is most potent as a contrasting device to narrate the story of their wartime years and Anita’s desperate and deprived childhood.
If Anita is the central figure in the book, it is her mother, Erna, who is the strong, determined force whose great resourcefulness and energy - and steely will - lead the family through its almost unimaginable privations and trials. This is a story not only of survival but of magnificent courage, and endurance. The characters are powerful, but their very human flaws and shortcomings are not glossed over.
The story in itself is unforgettable, but the author has invested every moment almost and every detail with an almost microscopic intensity. It is this sense of immensely close focus which brings all the appalling incidents to their most compelling verisimilitude and which makes the book something that refuses to be put down.
These people, and their sufferings, because of the power of language, claim the reader from the outset, and no matter how horrendous the details of their life become, the reader is compelled to read on - with anguish, fascination, and admiration.
There have been many books bearing testimony to those horrible years. ORDINARY WOMEN, because it deals (as the title suggests) with women who have to endure the ‘cultural damage’ of war’s destructive paranoia, offers a specific insight into the largely neglected experiences of victims and survivors - and the enormous cost that entails.
The books is impartial in the coldly savage reporting of human puppets and ciphers - British Occupation NCO’s are as scathingly delineated as Nazi or Communist stooges, and, above all, the members of the Traube family, whose story this is, emerge pared to the essence - indomitable if damaged.
Sophie Hamley’s Reader’s Report on ‘Ordinary Women’
Ordinary Women is a novel that lives on in the memory for years after the reader has finished it. It is an epic in the true sense of the word - a story of generations, of nations, of humanity at its best and worst. It is primarily the story of Erna and Anita, a mother and daughter who survive life in Germany during World War II as German citizens who would not support the third Reich, enduring the awful aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, the later invasion of Russian forces and the painful rebuilding of a humiliated nation. It is also the story of Erna’s mother, Anna, as she and her husband Georg Friedrich forge prosperous lives out of poverty before the travails of World War I, and of the friends and family who witnessed these decades with them.
The fascinating detail of the daily lives of these women at various stages in Germany’s history, the incredible horrors they endured, particularly in wartime, and their refusal to succumb to a lack of faith or an absence of resolve (one might call it their bloody-minded strength), combine to create a story of such overwhelming power that it lodges permanently in the reader’s mind. Its most powerful, and bittersweet, legacy is to remind us how badly humans can treat each other so that we may always pursue the belief that we can one day never behave that way again. This story deserves honour as a work of humanitarian fiction as much as any account of the Holocaust, for it gives us an account of what is arguably the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century - the war of 1939 to 1945 - from a point of view rarely heard in our culture.
If Ordinary Women finished with Erna and Anita’s lives in Germany as the war ended, it would deserve attention and praise, and a place on everyone’s bookshelf, for it is such a full and vivid account of their lives and of those years that it is remarkable for that alone. But it has so much more to give us, for we move with Erna and Anita as they replicate Anna and Georg’s early migration from village to city on a much larger scale - they relocate to Australia. The migrant experience is brought vividly to life: the harsh heat of the Australian sun on unaccustomed European skin; the unfamiliar smell of eucalyptus; the confusion of a language spoken in voices so different to your own. This emigrant tale, interwoven with the tragedy of Erna and Anita’s war story, is a truly Australian story, for there are very few residents of this country who are no descendants of those who came here in search of a better life.
In Ordinary Women, Edward Kynaston has created an indescribably moving story of three generations of extraordinary women who, in the end, were ordinary women doing what they must to keep going in the circumstances life threw at them. It is in that respect a story that we can all recognise in the people - the men and the women - that we know, but is brought so beautifully and unforgettably to life in this novel. Ordinary Women will never leave you - and you will never want it to.