Meike Ziervogel founded the excellent Peirene Press, and this, her debut novel, is published by Salt Publishing. I pretty much totally trust Salt’s tastes, so a book published by them, authored by the founder of another publisher I love, meant I had to seek this one out. (I was actually lucky enough to win a copy on twitter – thanks Salt!).
Magda is a fictionalised portrayal of Magda Goebbels, the wife of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. She is probably most famous, however, for killing their six children before committing suicide along with her husband, Hitler and Eva Braun in a bunker during the last days of the Third Reich.
Just over a decade ago (!), I did my A-level history on Joseph Goebbels as the powerful propaganda man behind Hitler’s rise to power, so I was particularly interested to see Magda’s side of the story. Joseph barely features here, but I think that’s appropriate. In this account, it is Hitler who fulfills Magda’s need to feel special and part of something greater than herself. One particularly creepy chapter (The Calling), puts the reader inside this quasi-religious feeling and Magda’s view of Hitler as a god-like (and father) figure. For Joseph to feature more than he does would dilute this a little – whereas his briefer appearance linked to his affairs allows Magda to feel even more special and powerful in the eyes of her god but still add to her childhood feelings of being unloved.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The novella opens with the family preparing to leave their home for the bunker; Madga telling the children they are going on a trip, an adventure. Only her eldest daughter, Helga, expresses the sense of foreboding of what we know is to come. The subsequent chapters each take a different narrator (from Magda’s mother to her daughter) in varying styles (from monologue to diary entries to ‘regular’ third person) to cover Magda’s life from birth to death. At times the changes in style jarred and didn’t feel as effortless as I wanted them to, but I liked it – each narrator has their own distinctive voice and it feels like each chapter is its own short piece of the puzzle.
In some way, the question of the book is ‘what drives a mother to kill her children and then herself’, set up by the opening chapter about the beginning of the end, and what we know of the story. But, this isn’t really what the book is about. It’s about how and why people end up where and who they are, and ultimately how this leads them to make the decisions they make. It’s a topic I find endlessly fascinating, and I liked how it was approached in this book.
Magda is a short, dark book, filled with unhappy people who go on to create other unhappy people. But it is also subtle and quiet and creeping. It’s the sort of book that I think would be described as ‘ambitious’, given how many different styles and how much is touched upon in its 115 pages, but ‘ambitious’ feels like a word you apply to something that doesn’t quite meet its goals. I think this does.