Berlin, 1937. The city radiates glamour and ambition. But danger lurks in every shadow… Anna Hansen, a bride-to-be, is a pupil at one of Hitler’s notorious Nazi Bride Schools, where young women are schooled on the art of being an SS officer’s wife. Then, one night, she is brutally murdered and left in the gardens of the school. Her death will be hushed up and her life forgotten. Clara Vine is an actress at Berlin’s famous Ufa studios by day and an undercover British Intelligence agent by night. She knew Anna and is disturbed by news of her death. She cannot understand why someone would want to cover it up, but she soon discovers that Anna’s murder is linked to a far more ominous secret. With the newly abdicated Edward VIII and his wife Wallis set to arrive in Berlin, and the Mitford sisters dazzling on the social scene, Clara must work in the darkness to find the truth and send it back to London. It is a dangerous path she treads, and it will take everything she has to survive…
This is the first spy novel I’ve ever read and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The Winter Garden incorporates a lot of the elements which I adore in a good book – mystery, scandal, sinister characters all held together by a facade of glamour. The biggest thrill for me, and I know this will be true for other Mitford fans, is the appearance of Diana and Unity:
Unity’s awkward woodenness only served to emphasize the beauty of her sister Diana, who was four years older, smaller by a head and exquisitely dressed in cream Dior, with milky blonde hair and eyes of bright, hostile blue. The two had the same broad brow and high cheekbones, but the features which produced Diana’s loveliness were cast more coarsely in Unity. Looking at the two sisters together made one wonder how birth could fashion such different outcomes from identical raw materials.
Diana and Unity feature throughout the story, appearing as two outsiders imposing on the sinister underworld of the Goebbels’ villa at Schwanenwerder. Aside from the Mitfords, the Goebbels and various Nazis appearing throughout, the story is, in fact, fiction. It’s a clever book, the second of the Clara Vine series (the first was Black Roses – another must read), which uses the historical accuracy of 1930s Berlin and the bridal schools (more about that soon) to motivate its fictional character, the actress by day, spy by night, Clara Vine.
The various layers running through The Winter Garden keeps the pace upbeat and it never palls. Clara, our heroine, walks a delicate tightrope, combining the ultimate balancing act of mingling with the Nazi officers wives, reporting their conversations to the British Embassy and passing on gossip to Joseph Goebbels which might be useful to him. Underneath her cool exterior Clara conceals her own dangerous secret: she is part Jewish.
The book begins with the murder of Clara’s friend, Anna Hansen – a journalist and student of the Nazi Bride School, located on Schwanenwerder, where the Goebbels’ have their villa. Until recently the details of Himmler’s notorious bridal schools weren’t common knowledge. Jane Thynne, much in the vein of Clara Vine, has unearthed a dark secret from the past. And using such a vice to open the book adds to the story’s mystique – after all, for the reader this is a new angle to every day life in Nazi Germany. Clara sets out on a quest to discover why Anna Hansen was murdered, and why the cover up of her death has reached the heights of the Nazi Party. But Clara soon realises that her own survival is at risk.
You can read more about the bridal schools by clicking here.
Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela and educated in London. She graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English and joined the BBC as a journalist. She has also worked at the Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, as well as numerous British magazines. She appears as a broadcaster on Radio 4. She is married to the writer Philip Kerr. They have three children and live in London.