Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Taster by V.S. Alexander

What I enjoy most about studying World War II is how much I don't yet know. There are constantly new discoveries, new interpretations, and new viewpoints. Such is the case with V.S. Alexander's historical novel, The Taster, set in Germany during World War II. Magda Ritter becomes embroiled in the highest echelons of the Third Reich when she lands a job as a food taster for none other than Hitler.

Along with other women, Magda daily puts her life on the line tasting food to make sure it's not poisoned before it is served to Hitler. She lives at the Berghof and at the Wolf's Lair, rubs shoulders with Eva Braun, and enjoys a sheltered existence while the rest of the country burns.

Magda falls for an SS officer named Karl who is anything but a loyal officer. As their relationship develops, Karl tells Magda about the horrors of the concentration camps and confides in her that he is part of a group of officers planning to assassinate Hitler. Magda, who already had doubts about Hitler, secretly supports Karl's cause, but must continue to pretend to be a loyal Nazi. 

Hitler soon learns of their relationship, and encourages them to marry so they can produce children for the Reich, even giving them engraved wedding rings with his name on them. Karl and Magda marry, and resume their life at the Wolf's Lair. But their happiness is short-lived. Karl is present in the room the day Claus von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt fails, and because he is afraid he will be implicated in the plot and thus be a danger to Magda, Karl flees. Magda is arrested and sent to an internment camp.

What follows is Magda's journey from imprisonment to release, her return to Berlin and a ragged existence as she tries to cope with hunger, daily bombings, and then, the appearance of the Russians. She ends up in Hitler's bunker and becomes witness to the last days of the Reich. When the war ends, however, Magda's life again takes a surprising turn.

All in all, The Taster was fairly well-done. The portrayal of Germany's downfall, of how Hitler , a man of power and magnetism, was reduced to a pitiful, sick old man cowering in his bunker, is commendable and very realistic. I had no quibble with the historical details, and I applaud the author for doing his homework.

I did take issue, however, with what I felt to be an overall lack of emotion not only from Magda, but from the work as a whole. There was far too much telling instead of showing, and I didn't connect to the main characters as much as I'd hoped to. It lacked depth in some places, and one issue in particular - Magda's presence in Hitler's bunker when he committed suicide - bothered me a great deal. I won't reveal what that is as it will spoil the novel, but it didn't ring true for me, and left me shaking my head in disappointment.

Nevertheless, The Taster is still a good story. Hitler really did have taste testers in his employ, young women who saw it as an honor to perhaps sacrifice their life to save Hitler's, and Alexander does a great job of exploring this little-known piece of history.