A powerful, heartbreaking, ultimately redemptive novel about three childhood friends in 1930s Vienna whose fates are closely intertwined, even when their lives take very different courses.
Two sides. One memory. Vienna.
1936. Three young friends - Leo, Elsa and Max - spend a perfect day together, unaware that around them Europe is descending into a growing darkness, and that events soon mean that they will be cruelly ripped apart from each other. With their lives taking them across Europe - to Germany, England, Prague and Poland - will they ever find their way back to each other? Will they want to? Inspired by a true story, WHEN THE WORLD WAS OURS is an extraordinary novel that is as powerful as it is heartbreaking, and shows how the bonds of love, family and friendship allow glimmers of hope to flourish, even in the most hopeless of times.
Reviewed by Anne Thompson
When The World Was Ours is an outstanding and powerful book. Days after I finished reading this I am still thinking about it; a compelling, heartbreaking story it is also one that highlights the importance of friendship, hope and love and those seemingly tiny moments that can, in reality, make a huge difference.
In Vienna in 1936 three children, best friends for years, are celebrating Leo’s ninth birthday with a day out, a Ferris wheel ride, sachertorte and laughter. The bond between Leo, Elsa and Max is instantly apparent to the reader and their joyful innocence is made poignant as with knowledge of the forthcoming historical events we are aware that this happiness will not last. Leo’s story is inspired by the life of Liz Kessler’s father, his experience and escape from the Nazis. In his childhood, his family participated in a chance meeting that changed everything for them and in this novel the author looks at what may have happened if that lucky moment had not taken place. She also explores the almost unanswerable question, how did normal, ordinary people become part of an evil regime.
The narrative is told in the three voices of the children; Leo’s in the first person past tense and Elsa’s in the first person present tense. We accompany these two children as they are swept up in events making identification with them more intense. Max’s story is told in the third person providing greater distance between the character and the reader and allowing a more objective view of his behaviour. The writing is compelling and frequently heartbreaking, so much so that initially I found myself stopping every so often to collect my thoughts. As the story progressed the bond with the characters, particularly, in my case, Elsa ensured that I kept reading without stopping. This is an unforgettable story.
Liz Kessler’s writing is excellent and her depiction of the slow, steady descent in the behaviour of those in society who discriminate and ill-treat others is chilling. These changes as seen through the children’s eyes are subtle at first, their parents whispering and worried, Max’s father no longer allowing him to play with his friends, the gradual introduction of restrictions for the Jewish community, the harsh separation in school and the humiliation and horror that will eventually follow this. Throughout the entire story, we know that this is true to the facts and that we must learn from history to ensure that the worst events in our past are never repeated. The parallels and relevance in our world today make this an even more important read.
Despite the heartbreak and the horror, we witness moments of kindness, friendship and hope, chief of which is the act of generosity by the couple who provide an escape for Leo and his family. However, even in the darkest times, there is light in the form of a helping hand, the bond of friendship and a loving family and the memories of a former happiness and the hope that this will return. There is much humanity in this story to offer a balance to the cruelty. It is a book that prompts questions and discussion as we witness the change in the characters, especially the character of Max. How much is he a product of his upbringing, his need to fit in and be liked and his desire to please his father? Liz Kessler never excuses the behaviour but provides a way in which the reader can explore the importance of personal conscience and individual choices.
The subject matter and the content make this a book to be shared only with those aged 12 upwards. It is a book that left me feeling stunned and tearful at times. It is however a book I would highly recommend. I think When The World Was Ours is a masterpiece and is a story of great importance. When passed on to teens and also to adult readers it is passing on the responsibility to ensure that the voices of those no longer able to speak for themselves are heard and listened to. This is ultimately a story about the strength of love and hope and it is one I will remember for a long time.