'The Red Ribbon': Book Review

Lucy Adlington's new novel is everything The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should be

Ella is a 14-year-old with a dream: to open her own dress shop and create fabulous dresses for her clients. She finds work as a dressmaker, imagining beautiful evening gowns, summer frocks and everything in between before cutting, pinning and sewing them into existence. Despite Ella's passion, however, this is a job for survival. Ella is imprisoned in Birchwood - a place much more famous for its German name, Birkenau.

A novel about dressmaking set in the most infamous Nazi concentration and extermination camp might initially set eyes rolling. Yet the basis of the narrative is true - there was, indeed, a tailoring studio created in the Auschwitz complex. Hedwig Höss, wife of the camp commandant, set up the workshop so that skilled prisoners could design and fit her wardrobe. A number of survivor testimonies from female prisoners attest to this.
Adlington has clearly used these testimonies in her novel, but not just to describe the dressmaking workshop. Other themes that are often present in witness accounts emerge: the importance of friendship and bonds to survive the camp; coping mechanisms, such as dreaming up sumptuous meals to distract from the constant hunger; the underground system of bartering and organising (camp slang for 'stealing'); the relentless roll calls. Adlington also presents elements of what Primo Levi termed 'the gray zone', the moral dilemmas that those in the concentration camp world faced. The reader sees this through Ella, as she makes difficult decisions in order to sustain her own life (potentially at the cost of others), but also through Carla, the young SS guard who flips between friendliness and abhorrent cruelty. The author has conducted extensive research into every aspect of life in Auschwitz-Birkenau - and it shows.

As the novel is aimed at teenagers and young adults, the book contains reference to the extermination process without going into too much detail. Gas and gas chambers are only mentioned once or twice, but the smoking chimneys and grey ashes frequently appear throughout the narrative. Ella is aware that some prisoners never wake up, or fall down dead at roll call, and the fate of those who are convalescing in the 'Hospital' is made clear to the reader. The reality of Birkenau as a death factory is treated sensitively, a fixed backdrop to the protagonist's story. Adlington has also included a short afterword in which she makes clear to the younger reader the significance of both Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Holocaust, as a historical event/place and their relevance in the modern world.

Rather unfortunately, the book has been marketed as a novel 'for fans of The Diary of Anne Frank and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'. Given that Anne Frank's diary is an authentic, historical document and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is, by its own admission, 'a fable', it almost seems unfair to place The Red Ribbon with these two other famous examples of Holocaust literature. Then again, The Red Ribbon might be seen to sit right between the two, a wonderful balance of historical fact and fiction woven throughout the novel. All too often The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is used in the classroom to educate young people about the Holocaust, creating misconceptions and inaccuracies about the genocide that are often hard to unpick as they grow older. Whilst some teenagers might scoff at the idea of reading a novel containing "girly" themes, The Red Ribbon deserves a far wider audience than the historical distortions portrayed in Boyne's 'fable'. In short, I cannot recommend this novel to young readers (and their teachers!) enough.

The Red Ribbon will be released in the UK on 21 September 2017.