Book Review: My Own Dear Brother by Holly Müller

My Own Dear Brother thumbMy Own Dear Brother is a powerful depiction of life in occupied Austria during the Second World War. But it is not a book about war, or a book about occupation. It is a book which makes you realise that anyone is capable of anything, that evil comes not only from outside, but also from within. And it also demonstrates the brutal and unfair treatment of the vulnerable members in society.   

The novel centres around Ursula, a young teenage girl who finds it hard to fit in. She adores her elder brother, Anton, and they are very close. But circumstances begin to change: Russian prisoners escape from the village concentration camp, she becomes friends with Schosi (a boy with learning difficulties who lives nearby) and the villagers begin to gossip about her mother, who is having an affair with a married man.

When Schosi suddenly disappears, Ursula begins to see that her brother might not be perfect, that in fact he is capable of far more than she imagined. She even begins to realise that she herself could be to blame for the harm that comes to others, and starts to discover just how brave she needs to be, as she embarks on a quest with Herr Esterbauer to rescue Schosi from the horrific Hartburg Hospital.

Guilt and Regret

I attended an event hosted by Cathays Library, at which Holly Müller read passages from her book and spoke about the difficult process of researching it. Müller’s family are from Austria. Her Grandfather and his brothers grew up during the Second World War and were involved in the Hitler Youth. She said that she didn’t want to interview her own Grandfather, as that would have been uncomfortable and difficult. Instead, she spent a few months living in Austria, speaking to elderly Austrians. The experience was “intense” and “uneasy” but also “a privilege”, as these people spoke to her of guilt and regret. “They were able to open up,” she thinks, “because they knew it was fiction”, she wasn’t going to reveal their identities, and “they knew they’d never see me again”.

Holly Müller

Holly Müller speaking about her book at Cathays Library

Müller sees the character of Ursula as “quite a flawed heroine – self-absorbed, working a lot of things out for herself, concerned with her own small world, until circumstances force her to look beyond that”. She also said that she proudly identifies herself as being a feminist, and she intended this to come out in the book: “It was a very patriarchal regime – both the Nazi regime and Austrian society at that time. Men were bosses and there were different rules applied to men and women.”

The writing style is engaging, with strong imagery that helps the reader to identify with Ursula’s mixed emotions, as she begins to realise that her own actions might have terrible consequences:

“Her feelings – anger, sadness, guilt, fear – were meshed together in a tangle so that she felt she was snagged in the centre of a thicket of thorns.”

Creating Ambiguity

Müller spoke about how she didn’t want to make it “too easy to draw moral conclusions” about her characters. Her own Grandad (who died a couple of years ago) and her great uncles were “very likeable, funny and charming” but, as she grew older, Müller began to realise that there was “unkindness” in their behaviour, particularly towards women. She wanted to “create ambiguity” in her characters.

Only one of Müller’s characters is based on a real person. Schosi is based on her Great Uncle, who has learning difficulties. It was strange, she explained, to think that in the case of her loveable Great Uncle, his own brothers had subscribed to the ideology that would have advocated his death. He did survive, but Müller has “never been able to ask” her family about that, as it’s just “too sensitive”.

What did her Austrian family think?

I asked her what her family’s reaction was to the novel, and she said that while she “felt relatively safe” with the novel itself, because it’s fiction, she actually wrote an article for the Guardian, which appeared on the day of publication, including photos of her family, and because the article was factual and directly about them, it made her nervous. But the novel is not likely to be published in a German speaking country, and most of her Austrian relatives don’t have good enough English to read it anyway.

Müller explained that she had “sensed this silence at the heart” of her family, and that’s what led her to write the book. She described it as “a fictional representation of my imagined world” and said that she “felt a sense of responsibility to get it right”. She “wanted to understand” as much as she could, and “didn’t want to make a moral judgement”. She described how an Austrian historian urged her to “be brave enough to tell it like it was” or there’d be no point in writing it at all.

My Own Dear Brother is an uncomfortable read. It really makes you wonder what you would have done in those circumstances. I couldn’t put it down, particularly when I knew that Schosi was in real danger, and Herr Esterbauer and Ursula seemed powerless to do anything about it. The final few chapters are shocking, as Ursula, her mother, sister and neighbour are treated abominably by the Russian soldiers. It is fictional, but the fact that it is based on thorough research makes it all the more compelling.

Müller has no plans to revisit this period of history in future, and is now working on a novel set in a 1970s commune, inspired by her father’s generation. She explained how her father, a child of a Nazi sympathiser, had reacted by becoming the “polar opposite – a liberal, leftie, dropout, shoeless hippy” in opposition to what had come before.

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