In which I review Monica Hesse’s historical fiction novel, Girl in the Blue Coat.
Well, would you look at this? A review! Not a tag! Hah! Will wonders never cease?
I read this book several days ago, but haven’t taken the time to review it. And then today I realised that if I don’t review it soon, it won’t be as fresh in my head anymore. Don’t have any spoiler-y things to rant about with this one, so we’ll just do a review this time.
Amsterdam, 1943. Hanneke spends her days finding and delivering sought-after black market goods to paying customers, nights hiding the true nature of her work from her concerned parents, and every waking moment mourning her boyfriend, who was killed on the Dutch front lines when the German army invaded. Her illegal work keeps her family afloat, and Hanneke also likes to think of it as a small act of rebellion against the Nazis.
On a routine delivery, a client asks Hanneke for help. Expecting to hear that Mrs. Janssen wants meat or kerosene, Hanneke is shocked by the older woman’s frantic plea to find a person: a Jewish teenager Mrs. Janssen had been hiding, who has vanished without a trace from a secret room. Hanneke initially wants nothing to do with such a dangerous task but is ultimately drawn into a web of mysteries and stunning revelations—where the only way out is through.
Beautifully written, intricately plotted, and meticulously researched, Girl in the Blue Coat is an extraordinary, unforgettable story of bravery, grief, and love in impossible times.
I’m not an expert on 1943 Amsterdam by any means, but from what I do know, the book seemed pretty accurate. There is a wonderful note from the author in the back of the book that talks about the research she did and explains some small changes she made to the historical events. So that gives me a lot of confidence (and the note is a great read in its own right).
The writing style was really beautiful, but nothing frilly or ornate. It’s written in first person, and Hanneke’s character really came through in her voice. Matching the suspense and mystery of the story, the writing moved at a fast pace, while still stopping to describe and explain things that the reader might not be familiar with, which is important when writing about a different era.
Characters and Theme
It may seem odd to lump these together, but if you read the book, you’ll agree with me. The characters embody the theme without being cardboard cutouts created to illustrate it. It’s beautiful.
I really liked all of the characters in this book. I wasn’t exasperated with Hanneke all that much, which isn’t something I’ve been able to say for very many female YA protagonists lately, I’m afraid. All of the other characters were well-written as well. Even Bas, who isn’t actually present in the story, was well-drawn through Hanneke’s recollections.
Hesse did a really good job with making these people feel complex. There are characters who are a little awful, but do good things, and characters who are basically good, but do some really evil things. None of them are just black and white.
One of my pet peeves in books is when a character seems really awful and the protagonist cannot stand that character, and then they turn out to be doing something good. Many times, that character’s awful qualities will suddenly disappear. But the character shouldn’t change just because the protagonist finds out new information about them! The protagonist’s opinion of that character can change, but if that character was previously rude, they will continue to be rude, even if they’re also doing a good thing. That’s called being complex and realistic.
There was a situation in this book where that could have easily happened, but it didn’t, and that made me very, very happy.
Here is one of my favourite quotes from the book:
All of us—Bas, Elsbeth, Ollie, me—I would care that someone understood we were flawed and scarred and doing the best we could in this war. We were wrapped up in things that were so much bigger than ourselves. We didn’t know. We didn’t mean it. It wasn’t our fault.
I underlined that so fast and put a box around that last sentence. If you decide to read the novel, that quote, placed towards the end as it is, will mean a lot to you by the time you reach it. It encompasses the events of the book so excellently. There is so much that happens in this book that is no one’s fault—or maybe lot’s of people’s fault. Maybe we could conveniently blame the Nazi’s. But it’s also the result of the choices of the characters, whether they know it or mean it or not. It may not be their fault, but they do cause it to happen.
I love this quote from the author’s note, too:
But as people continue to ask how an event as monumental and atrocious as the Holocaust ever could have happened, I wanted to tell a story of small betrayals in the middle of a big war. I wanted to illustrate the split-second decisions we make of moral courage and cowardice, and how we are all heroes and villains.
A+ for characters and theme. I’m very impressed.
I loved the mystery of this book. There’s a bit of a locked-room thing, a bit of a mistaken-identity thing, and a lot of notes and clues and confusion. Besides that, Hanneke has a few personal events that occurred before the story, which she only reveals to us one piece at a time. Those little side-mysteries keep the pages turning just as much as the main one of the missing girl in the blue coat.
Hanneke is a pretty reliable narrator, but there are a couple of times when she’ll say something, then admit that it’s an outright lie. That adds an element of uncertainty as well, and I really thought it was a great touch. Especially since it’s usually when talking about things she’s guilty about that she does this, so it seems natural and realistic.
I adored this book. I couldn’t put it down. Every chapter ended with more questions than it answered, and the chapters are just that size where you convince yourself that you can read one more, and end up reading ten more. I had the hardest time the day that I brought it to work with me: I read it on my lunch break, and ended up having to leave it at a very suspenseful part to return to work. It nearly killed me.
I love the cover design of this book. The book jacket is nice, and I’m absolutely in love with what’s underneath it.
The book jacket plays a bit more to the historical fiction aspect, while this is more the thriller aspect of it. I think it’s awesome.
Anyway, I enjoyed this book so much. It made me feel pretty much the full range of emotions (except frustration with the characters, which isn’t a feeling I like to feel). It also made me think, and I learned some things from it.
I give it a 4.5/5, and definitely recommend it to fans of WWII fiction, mysteries, thrillers, suspense, black market stuff, complex characters, themes illustrating the good and evil that people are capable of, and cool covers with blue maps of Amsterdam against black.
Have a lovely day!