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Herlinde Cayzer
A photograph runs like a leitmotif interweaving the fates of three protagonists over a period of seventy years. Beginning at a time of political extremism, the issue of indoctrination resulting in a fatality in 'sepia' was as topical during Germany's Third Reich as in present times. Parallels to Herlinde's story will surprise readers. The tissue box should be handy for the sadder moments brought about by a war many of the day's youth did not understand nor willingly participate in. Yet, the human spirit can overcome adversity, attune, and ultimately find redemption. After the end of the Second World War, the two surviving protagonists migrate down under unbeknown to each other. Humorously peppered confrontations with unfamiliar customs will have readers chuckling with the lively characters. Lingering mystery surrounds the sepia photograph at the core of the story.
Cayzer’s ambitious historical novel spans seven decades, from the 1940s in Germany to 2013 in Australia, addressing themes of resilience and forgiveness. The three main characters are children in Germany as the Nazis consolidate their power. Young Sigrid and her mother, who does not support the regime, escape to a marginal existence in the German countryside; after the war they relocate to Australia for a fresh start. Forced into the Hitler Youth program, Sigrid’s older brother, Heinz, never internalizes the Nazi indoctrination, but his friend Werner willingly accepts the propaganda. Horrors that Werner witnesses change his life, trailing him into old age and haunting the novel, as does the mystery of what happened to Heinz, as Cayzer connects the three’s stories, known and unknown, through a sepia photograph displayed in Sigrid’s home.

Sigrid, Heinz, and Werner are complex characters caught up in the events of history, and their stories—told in alternating chapters of past and present—resonate and intrigue as the novel builds to its satisfying final revelations. Readers expecting a page-turner, however, should know that Cayzer’s interest is often more in the sweep of time and history than swift commercial storytelling, with Sepia offering passages of historical facts and detailed summaries of the characters’ lives and cultural interests. Unexpected leaps into the heads of minor characters and a tendency toward grand musings on the part of an omniscient narrator (“…the primeval nature of the species took its natural, ecstatic and climactic course”) also diminish the narrative urgency.

Cayzer proves attentive to the horrors of the Nazi regime but also to the pleasures and pain of life afterwards, as her characters face the past and each other. Dialogue scenes are intimate, revealing, and often witty as the novel immerses readers in these lives and takes the measure of time, trauma, loss, and all that’s worth holding on to. Sprinkled throughout the pages are pencil sketches of characters and settings that add charm.

Takeaway: This historical novel charts three extraordinary lives from 1940s Germany to 21st century Australia.

Great for fans of: Kelly Rimmer, Alexander Starritt.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A-
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: B