Tessa Harris writes fiction featuring stories about women in WWII. The Light We Left Behind tells of women in intelligence roles at Trent Park, where German officers were held as prisoners in England. The Paris Notebook explores a fascinating ‘what if?’ scenario of the late 1930’s: as Europe was poised for war, what could have happened if the deep-rooted psychiatric problems of Adolf Hitler had become public knowledge? Would it have been enough for Germany to avoid the looming disaster of his making?
It’s easy for us today to assume that the serious psychological flaws of someone like Hitler would have been obvious to everyone who mattered. Let’s not forget that within Germany and elsewhere, there were many who agreed with his views on race and how to solve Germany’s economic and social problems. He had admirers in many places.
As an aside, let’s also not overlook the fact that the United States of America has already elected someone like Trump to be its leader, and may even do so again – despite damning information about the man now in the public domain.
So, it obviously takes more than information to change minds. As we see with responses to climate change (or lack of them) despite the plethora of scientific evidence now available.
Having said that, the premise of this novel is an tantalising one. The author’s note explains the real historical facts of the ‘notebook’ of the book’s title, and it’s not hard to see how the publication of a psychiatrist’s clinical notes on Hitler would have been an intelligence bombshell, had it been able to be deployed in time.
And it is this which forms the core of the book. The protagonist is Katya, a young German woman who is employed by a psychiatrist to type out his clinical notes on Hitler, in the hope that they can be published, and so possibly avert Germany pursuing the path to war. Both Katya and Dr Viktor are nursing emotional wounds caused by the Nazis and the stakes are high. They end up traveling to Paris to try to persuade a publisher there to take up the story.
The author paints a vivid picture of how Germans opposed to the Nazis live in fear of discovery and brutal retribution. It’s contrasted with France, where before war is declared, many people seem determined to ignore the threat posed by Nazi Germany and pretend that nothing is amiss.
Events catch up with everyone as all-out war erupts across Europe, and Dr Viktor and Katya are embroiled in a dangerous cat-and-mouse tussle with German agents over possession of the explosive notes.
In Paris, they meet Daniel, a world-weary Irish journalist nursing his own grief, who joins their cause.
The romance in the story did not work for me, and the ending really did not: a little too neat for my taste.
I was willing to overlook both of these issues because I found the rest of the story gripping and I felt invested in the publication of the doctor’s work – even though I already knew the big-picture outcome.
There is a real trend in historical fiction featuring women’s often overlooked roles and experiences in WWII. The Paris Notebook offers another take on the genre, with that intriguing ‘what if?’ question at its centre.
The Paris Notebook is published by HQ Fiction, in July 2023. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.