If you've just picked this one as your August 'Amazon Prime First Read' then you are in for a treat - eventually. The first quarter of this book is slow - really slow - and I wondered if I'd made a mistake in choosing it. That said, once it gets going, it's as if it's a completely different book.
Two characters tell their stories directly - Miriam and her father Henryk - and a third tells hers via letters hidden inside the seams and pockets of an inmate's uniform from one of Germany's concentration camps.
The book opens in Berlin with one of the most important 'liberations' of Germany's 20th Century - the destruction of the Berlin wall and the eruption of Eastern Germans rushing into their divided city It's focus though is on the abuse and eventual liberations of the death camps at the end of the Second World War and the life of people in those camps under the administration of the Nazis.
Oppression of all sorts is to the fore throughout the book although we're just getting stuck into life under the Nazis both outside and inside the camps when we realise that the more modern story of oppression is Miriam's domination by her husband Axel; a classic case of what we now call 'coercive control'. The juxtaposition of the two forms of menace is very powerful. As readers we can hope for nothing different from the past but we can continue to hope for some kind of redemption in the present tense of the book.
Miriam finds an Auschwitz tattoo on her father's wrist, under his watchband and he starts calling out for 'Frieda'. I nearly gave up at this point as I've seen a lot of photos of Auschwitz tattoos and they were never neat little wrist tattoos. More typically they were sprawling characters on the outer or inner forearm. This had me doubting the likely veracity of the rest of the book but once things got moving, I soon forgot. The point of the revelation of the tattoo is that we're supposed to believe that Henryk NEVER told his daughter that he'd been in the camp. He wasn't a Jew or a gypsy so Miriam wonders why he was there. As readers, we know because we're reading Henryk's thoughts about Frieda, the girl he loved and for whom he risked his marriage and lost his career.
Enlisting the help of an elderly woman called Eva, Miriam gets her to translate the letters she finds in the dress which have been written in French. Oddly, the book presents all of these letters - both the French and German ones - in chronological order which seemed rather 'convenient' to me. Clearly, Eva is controlling the release of the information to Miriam and to the rest of us.
Meanwhile, as Miriam learns about the woman her father once loved, she's trying to escape from the man she no longer loves - her husband and abuser, Axel. He's a controlling and violent man who has built a network of lies to support the image of his wife as weak, insane and unable to look after herself. Can learning of the courage of others so many years before help Miriam to find her own courage to say "No" to Axel?
Not everything rings true - the watchstrap incident in particular - and I had a lot of doubts about how the dress came to be in Henryk's possession with the letters still hidden after 45 years. The ending ties everything together very nicely though and is very well done.
One thing I don't agree with at all is the positioning of the book (via the blurb and the title) as being about the 'rabbit girls' of the concentration camps. These women were experimented upon by doctors in the camps who gave them less respect or care than a vivisection rabbit. And yet, from the point of view of the story, they are a really tiny aspect of a much broader discussion. Anybody with a morbid interest in the abuse of inmates in that way should probably find another book and I consider it a shame that the book is being promoted in this way. Perhaps we're supposed to view Miriam as a rabbit girl in her own right, abused by her husband for 20 years, but I suspect I'm attempting to force-fit a title to a book.
It's a love story and a story of somebody finding her strength to fight back with the help of an unexpected friend just as her father's once-lover finds the strength to survive in the camps through the comradeship of other women. Once I'd got through the first 25-30% of the book, I found it really interesting and put everything else 'on hold' to get the book finished.