The sixth novel by Australian author Kirsty Manning explores the legacy of WWII trauma and loss over several generations.
It was inspired by the true story of an album of photographs smuggled out of Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The graphic and shocking photographs were taken by an inmate of the camp under instructions from the camp commander, who wanted five albums made to present to his superior officers – itself a rather sickening act, I think.
The photographer risked all to create a sixth copy of each photo, which he kept hidden, until they could be smuggled out and kept in safety by a local villager. After the war, the photos were used by prosecutors during the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The album was brought to Australia in the 1970’s and today is kept at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
From these historical events, the author has woven a tale of courage and heartbreak, the pain that memories can inflict and the importance of truth telling. She has imagined how the album got to be in Australia, creating a cast of fictional characters and relationships that are entirely believable and compelling.
Hannah is a teenager in 1980’s rural Australia with her mum, who emigrated from then-Yugoslavia and married an Australian man. Hannah’s father has died and she has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother, Roza; but she adores her grandfather Nico, who visits every few years.
On his last visit he leaves a mysterious book, wrapped in an ordinary calico bag. Roza refuses to allow Hannah to see it and hides the book, but Hannah later finds it. What she sees are confronting images, bewildering to her young eyes. Over the years, she learns about the war, the Holocaust and the camps, and longs to see the album again, to make better sense of it and to understand the legacy Nico’s experiences have left for her family. She studies history at university and decides to undertake an honours thesis, on aspects of WWII camps related to her grandfather’s experiences:
You couldn’t rewrite history, but you could explore different ways to study it and bring it into the present political and cultural domain…the whole of Mauthausen, inside and outside the camp, needed to be treated with reverence and remembrance. The question of how to present and tell stories of the past could perhaps be one of the backbones of her thesis.
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Alternating with Hannah’s contemporary story are those of Nico during his long years at Mauthausen camp; Santiago, a young Spanish boy who helps the photographer Mateo in the darkroom; and Lena, a young woman in the village who is entrusted with the care of the photos. All of these characters risk punishment and likely death if their activities are discovered.
The novel is a tale of incredible courage and endurance, and of completing a journey that began decades earlier for Nico, Roza and Hannah.
It is a moving story about war and its aftermath. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a foot firmly in real historic events, will love The Hidden Book.
It is published by Allen & Unwin in August 2023. My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.