By Ekta R. Garg
May 27, 2020
Genre: Historical fiction
Release date: May 26, 2020
Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars
A young couple take the biggest risk imaginable for love and end up in a series of Nazi POW camps. With a terrible secret that could subject them to the worst of Nazi oppression, the two find a group of friends to help them survive. Author Maggie Brookes puts her documentary expertise to work at the slow-to-start but ultimately gripping novel The Prisoner’s Wife.
In Czechoslovakia in 1944, Izabela is restless on her family’s farm. The previous year, during their work for the resistance, her father and older brother went missing. Everyone suspects Nazi involvement, but no one can prove it. All Izabela knows is that she wishes she could have joined the resistance with them. The Nazis have torn their country apart, and she wants to do more than hoe vegetables and tend to pigs.
It surprises her more than anyone, then, that it is the same Nazi army that changes her life forever. Through a work program set up by the Nazi government, prisoners are brought to the farm to help her family with the hard labor. On the day the prisoners arrive, Izabela notices Bill right away. A British soldier, Bill and his best friend Harry are now consigned to the ill treatment of the POW camp. Wherever the commanding officer points with his gun, they go.
A friendship and then love blossom between Bill and Izabela. He teaches her English; she teaches him how to work a farm. Before long they become inseparable, and Harry conspires with them to help them get married. Once she has Bill at her side, Izabela thinks, they can follow the resistance to the north. Maybe they’ll find her brother and father and join the cause.
The two get married and run away. Izabela dresses like a boy to avoid suspicion while they travel. They manage to spend 10 days on the road before they’re captured by the Nazis and sent to a POW camp. In those first terror-filled moments, Bill and Izabela are sure the Nazi guards will discover that Izabela is a woman. They manage to prevent that from happening and only share the secret with other prisoners once they’re in the all-male camp.
To their astonishment, the other prisoners help them hide the truth. Any small thing they can do to defy the Nazis feels like a victory, especially in a war that seems to have no end. As Izabela, Bill, and the others try to survive, they will find bonds and challenges unlike any they’ve ever known before. With the weight of their secret and the heavy responsibility just to survive, they draw on one another’s strength to carry them through it all.
British author Maggie Brookes, well-known for her documentaries, uses her attention to detail to craft a touching novel. In the author’s note, she shares the research she did to depict the times. Her research shines as every page and chapter of Izabela and Bill’s time in the camps ring true. Their horror, their uncertainty, the sheer will to survive for one another will leave readers in tears by the end.
If the novel can be faulted anywhere, it’s in the slow buildup. It takes almost a third of the book for Bill and Izabela to meet, fall in love, get married, and run away. Impatient readers might give up on the book by then, which is a shame because the best parts come when the young couple are captured and sent to the POW camp. Then Brookes shines as an author.
The early portions during the love story, by contrast, don’t grip the attention as much. They venture a little too much into romance novel territory, and readers wanting a historical fiction experience might be tempted to put the book down. A firmer hand on editing these portions would have tightened the narrative.
Also, while marketing materials tout this as based on a true story, Brookes shares in the end notes that it was a story told to her. No one knows the name of the young couple who endured this hardship or where they might have gone after the war ended, and she entreats anyone with information on them to come forward so she can connect with the real-life Izabela and Bill. Given the stories of courage and sheer force of will from World War II, it’s easy to imagine this to be a true story, but the fact that Brookes is uncertain of the identity of the couple who endured it takes away something.
Readers who enjoy World War II fiction and would like another lens through which to view the last year of the war will definitely want to read this book. I recommend they Bookmark The Prisoner’s Wife.