I’m always fascinated by stories that examine the liminal space and time between the two World Wars. Take The Great Gatsby, for instance: it captures perfectly the weird mixture of fatigue and optimism that followed the Great War. In Carry Me, of course, Peter Behrens has the benefit of hindsight to allow him to trace the rise of Nazi Germany from the ashes of World War I. But he does this through a very meditative narrative, one that captures the way the 1920s and 1930s served as an all-too-brief respite during which the storm clouds gathered visibly, even if too few people were capable of recognizing what they foretold.
Carry Me came out at the end of February. I received this as an ARC from House of Anansi, but because I am a terrible person, I got completely distracted by reading books from a library trip and forgot to read this before its release. I love receiving free books: if you would like me to completely forget to read your book until after it comes out, send me a message and we’ll work something out!
Anyway, this is one of the types of historical fiction that really gets to me. Billy Lange kind of floats on the surface of life. His father and mother come from diverse backgrounds, German and Irish respectively, but more international in their experiences. The former’s internment during the Great War shapes a great deal of Billy’s youth, causing him and his mother to move from the Isle of Wight to London and then finally to Ireland until, reunited with his father, they relocate one more time to Germany. There Billy begins, properly, his on/off friendship (and sometimes more than that) with Karin von Weinbrenner, daughter of his father’s Jewish employer. It’s not quite a “forbidden cross-class romance” story—it’s not much of a romance at all, in fact, but more a kind of gravity between the two people.
The narrative alternates between episodes in Billy’s life, from childhood to young adulthood, and 1938, when Billy and Karin are preparing to leave Germany in the midst of its crackdown on Jews. Despite the intensity of this subject matter, Behrens manages to keep the pacing very mellow. There’s a surrealism to some of the story. This is probably best seen in the way Billy and Karin bond over their mutual love for Karl May’s Winnetou stories of the Wild West: May’s stories in no way attempt to represent the wild plains of North America, and its Indigenous peoples, realistically; rather, the stories serve as allegories for German idealism and the romantic connection between nobility and nature. Behrens does much the same here, with his characters feeling a lot like archetypes of the time rather than people.
Billy’s life is more defined by the in-between than anything else. German–Irish by descent, born and raised in England and then Ireland and then Germany, inspired by Germanic visions of North America, raised on notions of English propriety but betrayed by English xenophobia, and finally coming of age in post-war Germany while being taunted as an outsider … Billy has a lot of cultural baggage. It’s not surprising, then, that he fails to discover something uniquely his, and settles instead for an office job doing translation work. Similarly, it’s important to note that while Billy has some sexual encounters prior to and outside of his physical intimacy with Karin, he never has a serious romantic relationship. The closest he comes is to fantasizing about marrying a secretary at the law firm where he does some clerical work, and nothing comes of that.
As with most things in his life, Billy is stuck in the in-between with Karin. She constantly addresses him as “old Billy,” or “Billy, my old friend,” often peppering her speech with Anglicisms that make her sound more modern and forthright. She leans on Billy, falls back on him when she needs refuge, but sees him not as a viable partner so much as a pillar in her life. Or, at least, that’s the way Billy tells it … unreliable narrators and all. It’s worth noting, too, that Billy marries towards the end of the novel … though we might infer that the relationship is very different from the one he had with Karin, as I suppose romances begun later in life often must be.
I spent some of my time reading this book trying to decide whether Karin fits the profile of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (TVTropes). On balance I have to conclude she does not. Although Billy occasionally refers to her rebelliousness, it always seems to be a fairly tame and understandable reaction to her issues with her parents. And Karin does not really embody a character who exists as a kind of wish fulfilment for Billy: she seems to have her own goals and her own life. Instead, the two are more like planets whose orbits occasionally cross rather than one orbiting the other as a satellite.
And then that Hitler guy shows up and ruins everything.
Behrens deftly deals with the rise of fascism. He shows how people on every side of the issue don’t quite grasp the shape of what is to come. Both Billy’s father and von Weinbrenner fail to comprehend the dangers posed by Hitler’s anti-Semitic rants. The way that Billy describes the fascist crackdowns in Frankfurt and the changing zeitgeist is sinister. A great deal of literature and movies attempt to depict the horror of living under Nazi Germany (or in Nazi-occupied Europe) during the war, but I haven’t been exposed to as much literature that focuses on the rise of Nazism. In characters like Gunther Krebs, Behrens demonstrates how the Nazis leveraged personal and political beliefs in order to get people to conform to a sharp, manic vision of what Germany needed to become. And, alas, one gets a good sense of why it was so difficult for those with consciences to stand up and fight this rising power in an effective way.
The ending is a little bit predictable, and to be honest, I’m not sure I like it. Oh, it makes sense, in a kind of cinematic, inevitably tragic way. And I like that Behrens fast-forwards through Billy’s life during the Second World War and afterwards, that the story speeds towards its conclusion with little emphasis on what happens now that they have left Germany. This just might be one of those cases where the author does their job too well, and, like a meal that is so rich you know you won’t be able to eat your fill, the emotions inherent in this novel inexorably lead to a bit of a hollow feeling.
So that’s good, I guess? Carry Me is definitely some of the best literary historical fiction I’ve read in a while (using the word “literary” here to connote a certain style as distinct from historical fiction more driven by plot and circumstance than the character and consciousness of Behrens’ prose). It is a relaxing read, in the sense that the writing has the quality of a luxurious, soft blanket or bath towel—though the setting and subject matter, of course, doesn’t have the same soporific and reassuring qualities!