Summer Reads: The Secret History of Audrey James

This is part of my Summer Reads series where I’ll be sharing book recommendations –  a series of “not just cookbooks”.

For today’s #summerreads pick, I’ve got a new release from a favourite local author – Heather Marshall, whose book Looking for Jane was one of my favourite reads last year. The Secret History of Audrey James is a different type of historical fiction, set in a dual timeline (1938 Berlin and “present-day” 2010 England). As soon as I read the blurb, I couldn’t wait for it to release.

From the publisher:

Sometimes the best place to hide is the last place anyone would look.

Northern England, 2010

After a tragic accident upends her life, Kate Mercer leaves London to work at an old guest house near the Scottish border, where she hopes to find a fresh start and heal from her loss. When she arrives, she begins to unravel the truth about her past, but discovers the mysterious elderly proprietor is harbouring her own secrets…

Berlin, 1938

Audrey James is weeks away from graduating from a prestigious music school in Berlin, where she’s been living with her best friend, Ilse Kaplan. As she prepares to finish her piano studies, Audrey dreads the thought of returning to her father in England and leaving Ilse behind. Families like the Kaplans are being targeted, and the stakes grow higher by the day. Restrictions tighten, the borders close to Jews, and rumours swirl about people being apprehended in the street and shipped off to work camps.

When Ilse’s parents and brother suddenly disappear, two high-ranking Nazi party members confiscate the Kaplans’ upscale home, believing it to be empty. In a desperate attempt to keep Ilse safe, Audrey becomes housekeeper for the officers while Ilse is forced into hiding in the attic—a prisoner in her own home. As war in Europe threatens, it isn’t long before a shocking turn of events pushes Audrey to become embroiled in cell of the anti-Hitler movement: clusters of resisters working to bring down the Nazis from within Germany itself. But resistance comes with risk, and before the war is over, Audrey must decide what matters most: saving herself, her friend, or sacrificing everything for the greater good.

Inspired by true stories of courageous women and the German resistance during WWII, this is a captivating novel about the unbreakable bonds of friendship, the sacrifices we make for those we love, and the healing that comes from human connection.

The book examines the themes of friendship, love, family, self-blame, forgiveness, loyalty, courage and standing up for what’s right. Audrey, in 1938 Berlin, is forced to make unbearably difficult choices and we witness her loyalty (to her family, friends and the greater good) being tested over and over again. Kate, in 2010 northern England stumbles across Audrey as she accepts a job at her guest house and, despite an initial frosty welcome, Audrey eventually warms up to her, enough to share memories from her time in the war that she has kept secret for decades. The connection between the two timelines initially felt like a surface connection (the guesthouse Audrey owns is one where Kate’s parents once stayed) but there’s a plot twist which connects the two timelines at the end that I totally didn’t see coming that is beautifully woven into the story in a very natural way and it also wraps up some loose ends of Audrey’s story very neatly.

Audrey is inspired by Canadian Mona Parsons, a Nazi resistor who is, to the best of our knowledge, according to author Marshall, the only Canadian civilian woman to be imprisoned by the Nazis and sentenced to death during WW2. Her attitude on being sentenced was apparently so blasé that the judge commuted her death sentence (we see this happening to Audrey too) and she was instead sentenced to hard labour for life. Her full story is compelling (see here if you want to read more).

Similarly, the character of Ilse who Audrey hides in the attic when the house is taken over by Nazi officers, was based on real-life Elsa Koditschek, a Jewish woman who lived secretly for years in the attic in her home in Vienna (she figures it’s the last place people would look for her) while it was occupied by a high-ranking Nazi officer and his family. These are stories from the war I’m less familiar with and I was fascinated.

The book is extremely well-researched (don’t miss the Author’s Notes at the end) and, despite the dual timelines, is easy to follow and well-paced. It’s a page turner the way the best thrillers are – I kept on telling myself “just one more page”. A highly recommended summer (or anytime) read. I can hardly wait for Marshall’s next novel,  which will deal with women’s mental health treatment in Toronto in the 1960s.


Buy The Secret History of Audrey James on Amazon (this affiliate link should bring you to the Amazon store in, or closest to, your country).

For free worldwide shipping, find The Secret History of Audrey James on Blackwell’s.

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