Irma Joubert’s upcoming The Girl from the Train was actually published nearly a decade ago but this November will be the first time an English translation of the novel has been published. I’m not sure why it took so long for and English edition to make it to bookstores but Elsa Silke’s translation is superb and well worth the wait. I hope it will be talked about as much as The Girl on the Train and not simply in the context of their both having similar names (though if people read The Girl from the Train in the confusion, I don’t think it would be a bad thing).
Gretl Schmidt has her doubts about her mother and grandmother’s insistence that she jump from the train when it nears the hill but Gretl does as she’s told. Jacób Kowalski acts on the intelligence Poland’s Home Army receives and sets charges that will destroy a bridge when a train carrying German soldiers goes to cross it. But there’s an unexpected train coming from the other direction – a train carrying thousands of Jews headed toward Auschwitz. Gretl hears the explosion and believes it’s from planes dropping bombs. A few days later, Jacób is called to a house in the woods where a woman gives him custody of foundling Gretl. Jacób and Gretl’s lives are intertwined from then on; through the war and their later separation, while Jacób watches his beloved country fall under the growing influence of Soviet Russia and while Gretl crosses continents to find a new family in South Africa, their thoughts frequently turn to one another.
One of my favorite aspects of this novel is the way it addresses trauma, coping to survive, and eventually confronting that trauma. Gretl is not quite seven when she jumps from the train and loses her family. She has spent her whole life living in Nazi Germany and more than half of that time the world was also at war. Yet she has an incredible capacity and thirst for knowledge, absorbing languages and mathematics like a sponge. Her adaptability helps her to survive in Poland as the Nazis and Soviets battle for control of a nation struggling to maintain its individuality and culture, always while suppressing truths about herself and her own heritage in the name of survival. After the war is over and Jacób’s family can no longer afford to care for her, Gretl follows instructions and becomes the model German orphan, finding herself in South Africa in an Afrikaan family. Only as a young adult is she forced to confront the fact that she hasn’t yet come to terms with the tragedies of her childhood.
At the heart of the novel is a love story but to reduce the novel to simple romance is to do a disservice to the multitude of other forms love takes throughout the book – including the evolution of love between the central couple. Familial love and affection are perhaps the most prevalent where everyone wants the best for Gretl, whether they are her family through blood or circumstance. The many forms of sacrifice go hand in hand with that desire and because of the novel’s setting there are plenty of opportunities for demonstration.
The final chapters of the novel drag a bit as it plods along towards the story’s inevitable conclusion. But the story’s optimism and spirit in the face of undeniably harsh realities and the prejudices that arise in the wake of the war’s resolution are a nice break from so many novels that would indulge in bleakness. The level of detail regarding the various languages and cultures and how they’re presented is also wonderfully comprehensive, forcing the reader to work and acknowledge just how difficult the relocations are on Gretl and Jacób.
The Girl from the Train will be available (in English) on November 3, 2015.*
*(The release date of this edition was originally September 8; I’m not sure when or why it was changed to November 3)