The Devil Comes to Bonn

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Pub Date Jul 28 2023 | Archive Date Oct 17 2023

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A novel reflecting the #MeToo movement.

2015. Stella, a professor and historian, comes to the beautiful and ancient city of Bonn, Germany, for a World Heritage conference. With things at home tearing at the seams, she is determined to pretend all is well. At least, until she is assaulted over a trivial matter by another delegate, Professor Giovanni Costa. Bewildered, Stella descends into a shadowy observer, slowly becoming an obsessed stalker. When she meets the elderly Hildegard on a park bench by the River Rhine she is drawn into her wartime story, little seeing the similarities to her own situation.

1941. Hildegard, new wife to Kurt and student of architecture, surrenders to the inevitable; she needs a job for them to pay their rent. Interviewing for a hotel post, she does not realise her life now is off course, running on a track destined to collide with the sinister Fuhrer himself. Although repulsed, she must play along with the Fatherland ideals—to show anything but enthusiasm would not only leave her without a job but probably worse circumstances. She is thrust into the role of maid to Hitler in the infamous room 106 in a hotel he visited more than 70 times. She is no longer able to hide away from reality in her studies. Moving forward is the only option, no matter how dark it gets.

With the story switching between 2015 and 1941, Stella and Hildegard face questions of survival, identity, love and meaning as they juggle moral ambiguities in a world of elusive justice.

A novel reflecting the #MeToo movement.

2015. Stella, a professor and historian, comes to the beautiful and ancient city of Bonn, Germany, for a World Heritage conference. With things at home tearing...

A Note From the Publisher

Jennifer Harris is an academic in Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies and draws on her expertise in writing fiction. She has also written for print and television news. She is from Western Australia and lives in Seattle where she reads, writes and hikes the Pacific Northwest.

Jennifer Harris is an academic in Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies and draws on her expertise in writing fiction. She has also written for print and television news. She is from Western Australia...

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ISBN 9781803137629
PRICE £9.99 (GBP)

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Featured Reviews

Jennifer Harris’ "The Devil Comes to Bonn” sets a tough course for itself by dividing its action between two plot lines, one of which, with its story of a plot against Hitler, would seem inherently more interesting than the other, which begins with a clash over a seat at an academic conference and ends with the offended party, historian Stella Robinson, seeking revenge.
Hardly unputdownable stuff, you'd think, the latter, against the more palpably exciting Nazi story, yet it’s to Harris’ credit that she got me interested enough in the academic storyline, especially in the last third of the book, in which Stella’s plot for retribution comes to fruition, that her story did indeed came to be almost as enthralling for me as the Nazi story. This despite being hampered by occasionally overblown prose (when, for instance, a spokesman at the conference is characterized as sighing into the microphone “like a desiccating gust of wind scorching a withered paddock”) and to my mind an occasional excess of description, which, particularly at the beginning, stalls the novel’s action at a time when it’s critical to be pulling the reader in.
But if a reader can get past those first few pages, the pace picks up considerably when Stella's offender, one Giovanni Costa, a sewer archaeologist described by another character as "vulgar and powerful, a dumbass of a man,” makes his appearance and provokes her enough, first with trying to appropriate her seat and then with launching invectives her way, to prompt her to follow him with a vague notion of getting back at him somehow, a notion given even more impetus when she comes upon him in a nasty exchange with a young woman at a rail station which ends with the young woman very nearly being propelled onto the tracks. Then there are the photos she comes upon in his hotel room in which young women's breasts and genitalia have been highlighted and markings have been made on the photos suggesting that the man might be intending harm the women's way. Which, together with the rail incident, gives Stella to think there's a moral imperative for her to act – what, after all, might this monster do?
Almost as enthralling, as I say, as the Nazi story, though still suffering from being pitted against the more traditionally compelling storyline in which a young woman takes a maid's job at a hotel in Bonn frequented by Hitler – Neville Chamberlain met with him there, we’re told – and is pressured by the resistance into using her access to him to perpetrate a plot against the Reich. This at a particularly fearful time for her when she and her husband are daily seeing Jews rounded up. What horrific consequences might she bring about for her husband if she's caught? she wonders, a fear which carries even more weight for readers with their foreknowledge from the prologue that her husband will in fact end up in the hands of the SS.
Still, even with the manifest risks for herself and her family that she is taking, she elects to proceed, with an eye toward the thousands that her actions might save, just as in the academic plot, Stella must weigh the possible legal consequences for herself if she's caught against what might happen to those women in the pictures and perhaps countless others if she doesn't act.
Tough moral choices for both women of the sort faced by world leaders as they weigh unpalatable and in some cases arguably indefensible actions in fighting true evil. The novel notes, for instance, how Churchill was suspected by some of having had advance knowledge of Coventry but chose not to act for fear of revealing to the Germans that their codes had been broken.
“It’s possible that he let the people of Coventry suffer terribly so that, in the long run, more people would live,” one character says, invoking the sort of relativistic moral logic that has been used to justify the atomic bombings of Japan. And while the bombings themselves aren’t specifically addressed in the novel, one of the Empire’s offenses that led to so extreme an Allied measure, the wartime enslavement of Koreans, is very much addressed, with protests mounted against an effort to erase the wartime crime from a public record. Indeed, protesters seek to enlist Stella in their cause, but she declines, what with her preoccupation with Costa and the toll that has taken on her personal life. In her marriage, most prominently, where her relations with her husband have become so strained that they have left her with a broken arm and where her son is in dire enough emotional straits that they finally bring him to a desperate action, but also at her job, where her preoccupation with Costa has put her on shaky enough ground that it is imperiling her chances of getting a sub-editorship she covets.
All of which makes for quite a plateful for Harris' novel, but there’s still more, with a storyline from the woman’s childhood in which she’s terrified by a serial killer and running references to Rome and Cassius, which, while no doubt buttressing the novel's concerns for those familiar with classical antiquity, nevertheless seemed to me to perhaps make for a bridge too far for an already pretty stuffed novel.
Those who follow my reviews know I'm pretty spare in awarding five stars, with how for me no novel is without imperfection, so I’m always inclined, even with novels I genuinely like, to go with four stars (which, by the by, is a perfectly fine rating, just as a B is a perfectly fine grade in school, for all that students today apparently feel that anything less than an A is cause for aggrievement). But with the picture Harris paints of the dangers of authoritarianism at a particularly worrisome time for our own country (a neuroscientist has warned that with the MAGA movement we’re seeing the largest and most dangerous cult in American history) I'm persuaded to go ahead and give the novel five stars. The devil comes to Bonn in both main plotlines of Harris’ story, and now, with Trump's re-election a very real possibility (a prospect presidential historian Michael Beschloss minces no words in saying would bring a presidential dictatorship), it’s a good bet he’s licking his chops about setting up shop right here in America.

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When historian Stella Robinson arrives in Bonn to attend an academic conference, she is just happy at the prospect of escaping the troubles of her personal life for a time - with the additional bonus of networking with professional colleagues and exploring a beautiful city.

Unfortunately, all too soon, Stella's personal life is not the only thing that's troubled. An altercation with one of her peers ends in an ugly incident. The emotional fallout results in a strong reaction and leads Stella to start behaving in a stalker-like manner.

There are dual timelines in this story, and while I invariably find one more interesting than the other in such cases, this time both stories were quite engaging.

The second timeline is set in a much earlier time and tells the story of Hildegard, a woman Stella randomly meets during her trip to Germany in 2015.

As a young married woman, Hildegard's attempt to find a job at a hotel during the Second World War period ended up putting her in the very uncomfortable position of encountering none other than Hitler himself.

While Hildegard was not sympathetic to the Nazis' aims, there was no way that she could allow her opinions to show. As a result she was forced to lead a sort of double life - especially after being instructed to clean one particular room in the hotel, which was infamous for Hitler's regular presence there.

The writer brings interestingly alive certain similarities between Hildegard and Stella's lives despite the time, distance and personalities involved in the two experiences.

How we can find unexpected aspects to ourselves - despite what we think we know - is something many people may find relatable, even if not to such an extreme degree. And the moral dilemmas faced by the protagonists featured here have also perhaps appeared in most individuals' lives, in some form.

This book delivers an absorbing story (or stories), not least the twin aspects of Hildegard's inner life and Stella's revenge fantasy, so diligently plotted. That makes it well worth checking out.

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A great book , and I would recommend to those who love stories with dual plot lines and involve academia and some history elements. as that is one of the plot lines.

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The Devil Comes to Bonn by Jennifer Harris

With the story switching between 2015 and 1941, Stella and Hildegard face questions of survival, identity, love and meaning as they juggle moral ambiguities in a world of elusive justice.

I feel perplexed about this book which is unusual for me as I'm a love it or leave it type of person , but this one left me with mixed emotions , but I liked the way the two protagonists met and how Hildegards story impacted Stella and the situations she found herself in.

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There's a dark intensity throughout this novel. The author places her characters in 1941 and 2015 where history is much more than just a backdrop.
Both Stella Robinson and Hildegard Weber are very powerful characters. One has survived tragedy, the other comes close to experiencing tragedy, as they talk together on a park bench in Bonn.
I loved all the moral dilemmas that form a key element of this novel. It makes one think of the morality of the world we live in today. The world we have already brought so close to destruction through climate change.
I was fascinated by the references to Beethoven, his home in Bonn, and the less savoury presence of Adolf Hitler in the city.

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"The Devil Comes to Vonn" by Jennifer Harris is a gripping dual-narrative novel that seamlessly weaves together the lives of Stella and Hildegard in two different time periods. Harris explores themes of survival, identity, love, and morality as the characters grapple with the consequences of their choices. This beautifully written story keeps readers engaged as it unravels the mysteries of the past and the impact they have on the present. It's a compelling tale of two women connected across time, and it leaves a lasting impression on those who delve into its pages.

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