x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

In the Garden of Beasts: A US family's life in Nazi Germany

Erik Larson chronicle of an American family's experiences in 1930s Germany falls short of his previous works as the reader falls out of sympathy with the protagonists.

In the Garden of Beasts
Erik Larson
Crown
Dh51
In the Garden of Beasts Erik Larson Crown Dh51

Sometimes the closer you are to something the harder it is to see. It is only distance that brings into focus what, with hindsight, is impossible to miss.

Certainly that was the case with William E Dodd, the first US ambassador to Hitler's Germany. Dodd and his family arrived in Berlin in 1933 - taking up the post already offered to, and declined by, several eminently more qualified and arguably wiser men.

This is the tale of Dodd and his family's time in Germany, set against the drumbeat of atrocities that sounded the rise of the Nazis.

In the Garden of Beasts is a narrative history, a genre in which Larson is undoubtedly skilled, combining meticulous sourcing with the empathy required to create character.

As a chronicle of this period in history it is a success. But it lacks the balance of Larson's previous works as the reader falls out of sympathy with the protagonists.

Dodd's reluctance to relinquish his belief that he could "exercise a moderating influence over Hitler and his government" ceases to appear naive and seems arrogant. Meanwhile it becomes impossible to withhold judgement on his daughter Martha's determination to dance, flirt and ignore the horrors unfolding.