Wednesday, 12 June 2013

book review: rose under fire by elizabeth wein

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Genre: Historical YA
Rating: 9/10
Rose Justice is a young American ATA pilot, delivering planes and taxiing pilots for the RAF in the UK during the summer of 1944. A budding poet who feels most alive while flying, she discovers that not all battles are fought in the air. An unforgettable journey from innocence to experience from the author of the best-selling, multi-award-nominated Code Name Verity. From the exhilaration of being the youngest pilot in the British air transport auxiliary, to the aftermath of surviving the notorious Ravensbruck women's concentration camp, Rose's story is one of courage in the face of adversity.

It's at times like this that I wish that I was a Booktuber so that I could convey my thoughts and feelings through facial expressions and wild gesticulation! I want to profusely use all of the positive adjectives that I know to describe this but they all seem inappropriate in describing a book whose subject matter is so dark. It's not to say that the book itself is oppressively depressing, actually one of its great strengths is its vitality (which I'll talk about later), but my go to exclamations of 'Wow!' and 'Awesomesauce!' are just too light, too lacking in substance to really convey what I think.

There were definitely technical and stylistic things that I liked. The three part structure worked well - war stories don't often get as far as the aftermath so that was a pleasant surprise. (To anyone about to read Rose let me suggest that once you reach what you will assume to be the climax that you read all the way through to the end of part two! Not realising I was that close to the break I stopped a chapter or two short (I needed to sleep!) and it messed with the momentum when I tried to pick it up the next day.) Also, I tend to be wary of novels that include poetic interludes (it's often gimmicky and has a tendency to weigh down pacing) but I actually really enjoyed it here. Not only were the poems themselves excellent but as Rose's poems they were products of her experiences and as such were an integral part of her account rather than being 'applied' to the story. Of all the poems I think my favourite was 'Kite Flying' but they were several others that I really liked.

I don't want to spend too much time comparing Rose to Verity because, despite a couple of cross-over characters and themes (lady pilots, captivity, female friendship), they do stand alone. That said, I think it's worth mentioning that the things that I loved most in Rose were the same things that I had loved in Verity. It's no secret that I like war-stories (this is the 3rd novel I've read based in C20 warfare this year!) but what really resonated with me in Verity was the friendship between Maddie and Julie - I was already inclined to like a novel about lady war pilots but their friendship and their love and respect for one another was what really made me love that book. In Rose the emphasis is again on female friendships and relationship dynamics and they are the backbone of the story. As the majority of the book is set in a concentration camp, the most developed relationships are those between Rose and the other detainees but I also really liked the relationships given less page-space such as with the other ATA girls and her family. The cast-list for this is, I think, longer than in Verity and the characters aren't equally developed (I would have really loved more on Elodie and Karolina and I wish we'd had a little more on Irena towards the end) but we get enough to care about each of them. While there are many notable incidents which demonstrate the depth of love between the girls, my favourite moments tended to be the slightly quieter ones - the gifts from Elodie and the first few conversations between Rose and Irina are particularly lovely. That said, I really respect Elizabeth Wein for her willingness to show her characters in unflattering light - they are often callous, unkind and selfish but Wein never apologises for that. They are the victims of terrible crimes but they are not saints. The final section illustrates quite well how the camp changed and influenced the girls in many ways but that it didn't change everything about them; their manners weren't just 'on hold' while they were in captivity and life outside the camp offers no quick fixes.

Writing a review for this is hard because reviews require me to be rational - I'm supposed to express myself in full sentences and justify what I'm saying with logic - but really the most important thing to convey about Rose Under Fire is how much it made me feel. There's a certain extent to which any accounts of life in concentration camps (fictional or otherwise) evoke an emotional response - the atrocities described are appalling and harrowing and deeply affront our humanity and that is definitely the case in Rose. What is special about Rose however is how Elizabeth Wein manages to infuse a book which is set in such a terrible part of our history with so much life; it's not just that the descriptions are vivid, it's that the voices of the characters sing. Though describing the bleakest of situations, the story is underpinned with goodness and joy and hope and it's that which makes the book so profoundly moving.

Highly, highly recommended but there will inevitably be ugly crying!

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