Because I couldn’t bring myself to keep reading past 13%. But some assorted thoughts.
First, it’s obviously true that the story of Esther is not a romance. However, personally I don’t think this means it can’t ever be reimagined as a romance or inspire a romance. Plenty of satisfying romance novels draw on non-romance sources such as ancient myths, fairytales and classic literature. I do think it means that you can’t simply do a re-telling of Esther and call it a romance. You have to transform the story to make it a romance.
Second, I don’t think it is per se appropriative or oppressive for Christians to claim the Hebrew scriptures as their text. I understand why Jewish readers feel that it is and I agree that they have every right to express those feelings. In a sense this issue is at the heart of what divides Jews from Christians – the Christian claim that the NT is the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures is fundamentally opposed to the Jewish belief that it is not. But since Jesus himself and all his earliest followers were Jews, they were not outsiders appropriating a text which did not belong to them. They were insiders, seeing how the promises they knew from their own text were being fulfilled in Christ and extended to people from all nations. I can’t apologise for that. I can’t apologise for believing that the Hebrew scriptures are fundamentally Christian since that’s where I believe they find their fulfilment. I don’t expect Jewish readers to agree with me on that, obviously. I do think it’s worth realising how deeply-seated this issue goes – it’s not just about politeness, it’s about matters which are fundamental to the distinction between the two religions.
Third, I think it’s really, really important that we tell stories about Nazi Germany. We need stories to help us remember and to help us understand. Germans in the 1930s and 40s were not a different breed from the rest of us. They were not a separate species of monster. They were people who through a combination of circumstances ended up behaving and believing in monstrous ways. If we start to believe ‘we would never…’ or ‘it could never happen here…’ or ‘it could never happen now…’, we open the door to letting it happen again. We need to realise that people are capable of horrific brutality and inhumanity, and work hard at stopping the circumstances and ways of thinking that let it happen.
Fourth, I do believe that nobody is beyond redemption and that anybody can be forgiven. That’s hard to understand, but it is a fundamental part of my Christian faith. The God I believe in is a God of redemption. That’s what he does – he takes people who are his enemies, he forgives them, he renews them, he gives them a new life and his own Spirit to help them keep living differently. Redemption is God’s work, not ours. In a narrative, a character can be redeemed in other ways, as the author shows us their repentance and real change. But for a character whose actions have taken them way beyond normal limits, that sort of narrative redemption is hard to pull off in a way that demonstrates real repentance, real change and also appropriate consequences for his actions. Any redemption narrative for a Nazi prison guard is going to need to involve a war crimes trial, for instance.
Forgiveness is different from redemption. People who are utterly unrepentant and unchanged can still be forgiven. Forgiveness comes from the injured party and entails them letting go of their anger, bitterness and hurt towards their oppressor. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you waive any consequences of the action, or that you have to re-establish a relationship in exactly the same way as before. Broken trust, for example, may still have consequences. But forgiveness does mean not seeking vengeance and not feeling animosity. Corrie Ten Boon’s autobiography shows just one example of people who were imprisoned in concentration camps and were able to forgive their guards.
Forgiveness is hard and it gets harder as the wrong done against you and those you love increases. For Christians, forgiveness is a command. We are to forgive those who wrong us, because God has forgiven us for all the wrong we have done him.
Fifth, and this is more or less why I couldn’t read That Book, I don’t believe that there is any room for romance novels between Nazi officers and Jewish prisoners. A romance novel requires a central relationship with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. It seems to me that there are several reasons why this is never going to work:
(i) The power imbalance is so great that the central relationship is never going to be emotionally satisfying.
(ii) The romantic leads need to be ‘heroes’. That is, they need to be people we care about, people we are rooting for, people who ‘deserve’ a happy ending.
(iii) The religious differences between the protagonists can’t be overlooked in this setting. I do think you could have a successful Jewish/Christian romance novel set at a different time, but not in this case. Not with a hero who has chats with Eichmann before breakfast and a copy of the Final Solution in his office.
(iv) There is no happy ending. There just isn’t. The only suitable ending which might redeem his character at all is going to involve him being convicted of war crimes and thrown into prison for the rest of his life. This is not exactly your romance HEA. The best ending for her is that she survives, gets to move to a new country and build a new life.
Sixth, there is definitely no way this works as an ‘inspirational’ – read ‘Christian’ – romance. There is an ambiguous conversion in the book. Some readers think that her reading of John 3:16 and subsequent prayer imply a conversion to Christianity and others don’t. My sense is that within the expections of the inspie subgenre, that should probably be taken as a conversion, since the genre requires both protagonists to be Christians for their HEA. I’ve talked before about my issues with conversion romances, but in this case the issues are so much greater than that, given the set up.
So, yeah. Don’t read this book. Just don’t.