Monday, December 26, 2011

The Traitor's Emblem

The Traitor's Emblem
Author: Juan Gómez-Jurado
Atria Books, 2011 (reprint)
336 pages

I bought this book a while ago and started reading it, but couldn't get through the first chapter. But I kept seeing good reviews about it online, so I decided to give it another shot. Fortunately, the results were different this time, and I was pulled right into the middle of a storm off the coast of Spain in 1940. A Spanish ship rescues a small group of Germans crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. As payment for rescuing them and taking them to Portugal (not Spain), the leader of the German group gives the Spanish captain an emblem made of gold with a diamond. Fast forward some sixty years, when the Spanish captain's son is offered a lot of money for the emblem. The potential buyer tells the tale of the emblem, and things really start to get interesting.

The tale starts in Munich, Germany just after the end of the first World War. Things are bad. The economy's in shambles, Germany's in major debt, and there's a shortage of jobs. Fifteen-year-old Paul Reiner and his mother, Ilse, live in the home of Ilse's sister, Brunhilda, who's married to a baron. The baron has a gambling problem and is quickly losing his assets, so there's a lot of stress in the household. The Reiners are treated more like servants than family. Paul's father disappeared when Paul was just a baby. The story is that the elder Reiner was captain of a ship that sunk off the coast of German South-West Africa (now Namibia). Paul wants to know more, but the subject seems to be taboo.

The baron and baroness have two sons: Eduard, a recently-returned war veteran with no legs and plenty of post-traumatic stress; and Jürgen, a big bully just a few months older than Paul. At a party in his honor, Jürgen tries to impress his mates by disrespecting young guest Alys Tannenbaum, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Paul steps in to defend Alys, and thus begins a rivalry between the two cousins that will just get nastier as time passes. An event later that same evening puts Paul and Ilse out on the streets, no longer welcome in the baron's mansion -- but not before Paul hears a different story about is father's death.

Paul and Ilse struggle to survive in a world where inflation is rampant and the political winds are beginning to shift. Gómez-Jurado masterfully weaves historical facts into the story, while creating a believable and very interesting story around the characters of Paul, Jürgen, and Alys. And that's really all I want to say, because otherwise I'm going to write all night and give way too much away.

Bottom line: GREAT book. Loved it. Glad I gave it a second chance.

Next up will be something light -- not sure what yet. I'm also reading a "healthy" book for a work initiative, so a nonfiction review is coming soon!