Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Title: Orphan Monster Spy
Author: Matt Killeen
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Pages: 423
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Orphan Monster Spy is the rapid progression evident in the life of 15-year-old Sarah, blue-eyed and blonde, surname unknown, whose mother is shot dead by Nazi soldiers at a checkpoint, just as they are about to flee.

Life is about to get very dangerous for Sarah. It is August 28, 1939, the beginning of World War II when Nazi supremacy is at its height in Germany. Not a propitious time to be an orphan and the worst time to be a Jew.

The Jewish Sarah, daughter of a non-Jewish German father who turned away from them once Hitler proclaimed war on Jews, must now fend for herself, live by her wits, and escape she knows not where.

By chance, she is led to Helmut Haller, a Nazi. But Haller is only pretending to be a Nazi. His true self, Captain Jeremy Floyd, is a spy against the Nationalist Socialist regime, and nurtures Jewish sympathies. He is also a consummate actor and he teaches Sarah to hone her innate skills.

Meanwhile, the threat posed by the Nazis is growing. They are like mold. They’ve grown and now they’re everywhere.

Hans Schafer is a Nazi scientist who is developing a bomb that can flatten a city. Schafer has a daughter, Elsa, who is Sarah’s age, and is studying at a prestigious school. Haller gets Sarah admitted to the school and entrusts her with the task of infiltrating Fraulein Schafer’s life, and her home and stealing the blueprints relating to the bomb.

But the mission is not going to be easy. It is a tough job even for a 15-year-old, let alone one that is undernourished enough to pass for 11.

Sarah’s peace of mind is threatened by Von Scharnhorst, the head girl, also known as the Ice Queen, who could spell the end of her mission. For Elsa belongs to the Ice Queen’s coterie. To make matters worse, the spectre of the Reich hangs over the school, making it far deadlier than the average battlefield of American High School.

In a culture that stresses on the survival of the fittest, the timid girls are bullied. The girls are known by their surnames, all personal touch and individuality erased. The strongest girls are drunk on notions of supremacy.

Survival means identifying yourself with the Nazi cause. Each time Sarah chants the Fuhrer’s name, she feels as if a piece of her has died. Increasingly grubby and unwashed.

As each step takes her closer to her mission, she feels more miserable, understanding the inherent dilemma of being a spy. Joy and misery cooked in the same pot, tasting of both and neither.

The story makes the war come alive, the horror of it, the meaningless deaths, of people caught unawares by events larger than they should have been. We hear of Kristallnacht, the terrible night when Jews were attacked in their homes and establishments, the violence becoming mainstream for the first time.

As the horrors mount in magnitude and intensity, we see the pain inside Sarah increase. At first the pain is tiny, like something her mother would keep expensive jewelry in. Over the six years of Nazi power, it becomes a traveling trunk, varnish blistered and swollen, until Sarah imagines herself becoming the box.

We suffer many heart-in-the-mouth moments on behalf of Sarah and there are so many of these moments. No child should have to suffer fear the way Sarah does, and yet Sarah is only a fictional representation of the countless kids that did.

I liked the character of Sarah, her resourcefulness. I adored her naivete and childlikeness and admired her precociousness and maturity. How she acts like a little girl, yet is capable of thinking on her feet when the need arises. I found it interesting that she looks at people’s bookshelves to see what kind of people they are.

There are many facets to Sarah. She quotes from the Arthashastra, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” She is a gymnast who practiced at home when Jews were forbidden to compete. Who saw Jesse Owens live and experienced vicariously the thrill of beating the “superior race.”

She is a good person, who is forced into the character of a Monster, while at the school. But she is still a child, even if she is forced into adulthood. When she is happy, she feels a happy little ripple of tingles like the night before a birthday.

Sarah grows on us. We get recollections of her early childhood when she was starving, her mother too ill to work. It’s hard to tell whether this part of the narrative is a memory or a nightmare. Perhaps it is both.

The book is peppered with German words, which lend a great degree of authenticity to the story. There are some beautiful lines that stand out, a lot of them coming in the dead mother’s voice.

Sarah’s mother’s voice eggs her on. It teaches her to pay attention to the other characters in the cast, to feed off them.

You play the part all the way into the wings, on into the dressing room. You don’t stop until the final curtain.

Take the horror and use it.

Stay in character. You can be at the back, stuck in the chorus, but there will be one person staring right at you if you drop your mask.

Haller tells her further, Never lie when you can tell the truth.

Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth, Haller says at one time. Orphan Monster Spy is also a piece of art that helps us understand better the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

At another point, Haller describes the insecurities thrust on them as a result of Nazism in this way: Like a badly written book that had to be read to the end.

Orphan Monster Spy, on the other hand, is an extremely well written book that I savoured to the end. I was sorry to say goodbye to Sarah and Captain Floyd.

I sure hope there’s a Book 2.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

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