Some books just stand out. This one is one of them.
The Girl From the Train first caught my eye because it was originally published in Afrikaans, the language of South Africa. Not many books with Christian themes – what am I saying – not many books of any kind from South Africa reach international status.
I happen to have friends from South Africa, so I was immediately drawn to this novel that partially takes place in their home country. Few books begin in Poland and end in Africa.
I realize that I gush about every book I talk about on this blog (trust me there are books I don’t like, I just don’t talk about them. I promise I’ll write a review about a book I didn’t like soon, just comment below and ask me what I don’t like), but The Girl From the Train truly was a beautiful, deep, and moving story.
When Jakób Kowalski finds six year old Gretl Schmidt, she has just narrowly escaped the bombing of the train she was on – a train headed for Auschwitz. Jakób, overcome with guilt for planting the bomb that blew up her train, shelters her and brings her home to his own family. Here Gretl must conceal her Jewish identity from his Catholic family.
Jakób and young Gretl form a trusting friendship because of all they have experienced together. Gretl sees Jakób as her lifeline, the only human who completely comprehends the depth of the tragedy her young life has seen.
However, this cannot last. When Jakób’s family is no longer able to take feed an extra mouth, he makes the heart wrenching decision to allow Gretl to be adopted by a Protestant family in South Africa. Although she is embraced by her new parents as their own, Gretl feels she must conceal her Jewish heritage, Catholic upbringing, relation to communist Poland, and tragic past.
As time goes on, Gretjie, as her South African family calls her, learns to suppress her memories of the war – memories that come with such extreme force that they threaten to burn her soul to ashes. She desperately yearns for Jakób, but believes she will never see him again.
Jakób, still in Poland, makes a name for himself by defying the Soviet’s rule of his country. When he speaks out against them, he must flee all he has ever known.
Upon fleeing, he finds himself in anti-communist South Africa. Here he is reunited with twenty year old Grietjie.
Will the bond they formed during the most dismal years of their lives, survive the test of time, new suffering, and religious divide?
I do not have the words to describe the beauty of this book. It defied Christian stereotypes in fiction and asked questions about heartbreak, religious and social division, and love. Ultimately it came to the conclusion that love transcends all these things. This was displayed beautifully in Jakób and Grietjie and in her adoptive family.
However, I did wish that personal faith was discussed somewhat more. It is faith in Jesus that saves us from fear and unspeakable sorrow.
One thing I loved was Grietjie’s relationship with her grandfather. She forms a particular bond with him, as he understands the significance of the past she does not speak of. He knows that she carries a sorrow to great to bear, yet he realizes that no amount of words can heal the wound that is there. Rather, he encourages her while offering wisdom, love, and someone to confide in.
My favorite quote from the book is this:
” ‘But what is the difference between being in love and truly loving someone? How do you know you really love someone, Grandpa?’
‘He got up slowly, took a cigar from the top drawer, cut off the end, and sat down next to Grietjie again. ‘When the dust settles after the explosion, you look at the pieces that remain. Then you have to decide whether your lives have become so entangled that you can no longer live without the other.’ He struck a match and lit his cigar. The flame burned high, smoke billowed. ‘Grietjie, love is not about excitement and physical desire and attraction. Those things are important, of course. But true love is the core that remains after the infatuation has burned out.’ ”
I cannot recommend this book more, the story is beautiful, as is the writing. Joubert’s wonderful prose shines through, even in its translated form. I’ll definitely be reading more of her novels.
(Collage photos from Pinterest, top image is my own.)