This gripping novel begins as a love story set in Berlin immediately prior to the Second World War: Max Hartmann, a German schoolboy, meets Lili Petalo, a Romani trapeze artist, when he takes his younger brother to her family’s circus. He is immediately engulfed by powerful feelings for her but as she reads his Tarot cards she is shocked by a future which is full of turmoil and divided loyalties. This reading, highly pertinent to their future relationship, also creates a microcosm of wider political events soon to change Germany for ever.
Matthias uses a dual narrative, which effectively symbolises both the distance between the protagonists’ lifestyles and the differences in the way they are treated in Hitler’s Germany. Poignantly, the story begins at the end of Max’s life, when Lili has been dead for many years, murdered in an internment camp. The connection has remained between them and he hears her voice, urging him to tell their story, that others may learn of the sweetness of their forbidden love and the sour bile of needless persecution.
The horrors of war for those deemed unfit by the Nazis to live are vivid and moving-personalised and thus more powerful because they are told through Lili’s voice, seen through her eyes. This story was written about the Romani Holocaust, and Matthias quotes Angela Merkel’s words as she opened a memorial to the Roma and Sinti who were so brutally killed in the camps: ‘Èvery single fate in this genocide fills me with sorrow and shame.’ This book needs to be read, so that they might be remembered.