The Taster by V.S. Alexander (Historical/War Novel, February 2018).
In early 1943, World War Two is raging and Berlin is beginning to feel the full wrath of Allied air power. Till now, the German capital city has largely been spared direct attack and Magda, a mostly aimless young woman still living with her parents, is blissfully unaware of just how bad things can become. She’s mostly apolitical, as well–navigating as best she can between a mother who believes the happy lies of the Hitler regime and a very skeptical father. Then the first serious air raids shake everyone’s confidence and her parents pack Magda off to Berchtesgaden, a town in southern Germany that has thus-far escaped the war’s ravages. The plan is for her to live with her Uncle and Aunt, both ardent admirers of the Nazi government. The Berghof, Hitler’s luxurious and well-guarded mountain retreat, is just up a mountain road from the town–so what could be safer?
But Magda’s Spanish-born Aunt makes it plan that she must find employment. All that’s available is government work and Magda stumbles into a strange, prestigious but potentially deadly job. She becomes one of the Nazi dictator’s personal food tasters, with her senses of smell and taste, as well as her physical body protecting the ruthless leader from would-be poisoners.
Alexander does a fine job portraying the paranoid reality that Magda finds herself in. The regime’s propaganda notwithstanding, the war against the Soviets is already going badly and the American, British and Commonwealth Allies are soon to punch a gaping hole in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in Normandy. Still worse is to come, of course.
She reluctantly assumes her duties. The chief cook is a blindly loyal admirer of Der Fuhrer, yet proves a good friend to the bewildered younger woman. And there’s a certain SS Captain who she’s attracted to, against her better judgement. Captain Weber returns the feeling and, once he’s sure of her, he reveals that he’s part of a discontented group of officers who’ve come to realize Hitler is leading them all to ruin. On the one hand, he wants to keep Magda safely out of danger; on the other, his need to confide in someone leads him to show her proof of the grotesque war crimes of the Nazi regime.
Schemes and counter-schemes swirl around Magda, the war drags on and she is offhandedly befriended by Eva Braun (Hitler’s till-now secret mistress). She inadvertently helps save the dictator from another taster’s clumsy lone-wolf attempt on his life, earning her Hitler’s trust (at least much as the paranoid leader can trust anyone). She and Weber stumble along in their relationship as plots develop. They marry (with Hitler and company in attendance!) but the failure of the most famous internal attack on Der Fuhrer implicates Weber (he is reportedly killed in the aftermath). Magda falls out of favor and briefly experiences one of the Nazis concentration camps as a result.
Released when others vouch for her, she gets a firsthand taste of all of the war’s horrors in a beseiged Berlin. In the underground bunker where Hitler is making his last stand, she returns to Hitler’s service (but only becuase she is now bitterly determined to kill him herself).
Will she get the chance to interfere with the crazed Nazi headman’s idea of a ‘good death’ and personally avenge all the pain the man has brought to Germany, her loved ones and her? You’ll have to read the book.
The book uses the old literary device of a framing story in a Prologue and an Epilogue from the now-elderly Magda in our time, with her account of the 1943-1945 years nestled between. So we already know she survives the war and sense that the ‘usual/accepted’ story of how Hitler killed himself is at least open to question.
Alexander makes effective use of this technique (that is often frowned on by today’s literary critics). He also captures the atmosphere and desperate realities of the times, especially the necessarily paranoid mindset of all those caught up in the deadly game of plots, counter-plots and sudden violence.
A 4-page essay by the author concludes the book, providing interesting details of where his idea for this fictional retelling of this infamous and bloody period of history came from.
A very solid and compelling read, despite the fictional need to have Magda experience multiple events that she would, in the real world, be unlikely (to put it mildly) to survive. But Alexander’s literary skills allow the reader’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ to get past that quibble.
A violent yet exciting book is the result.