Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen: excellent YA historical fiction

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What it’s all about…

Orphan Monster Spy is the story of 15-year-old Sarah, who lives with her mentally unwell mum in Germany at the time of Hitler and the National Socialists. Sarah is a Jew and experiences the racism and isolation that this involves. An attempt to flee Germany ends in her mother being shot and killed at a checkpoint but Sarah’s Arian appearance – blond hair, blue eyes – enables her to escape. On the run, she encounters a mysterious man, the Captain and together they realise that working together could be their way forward in this dangerous world they find themselves in. The Captain sends Sarah on a mission to a National Socialist elite school for girls, where she is to befriend the daughter of a scientist, who has the potential to destroy Germany’s enemies. It’s a story of survival, of deep-rooted inner strength in adverse circumstances, of flawed human beings and the complex dangers of power.Untitled design (4)

Plot wise…

It is a satisfying, page-turning spy thriller with that boarding school element, which is always a great setting for narratives of intrigue and mystery.  I was totally gripped throughout. However, there is so much more to Orphan Monster Spy than its plot alone.

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I loved…

Matt Killen really captures the German setting, the National Socialist period in history, in an accessible and engaging way. I like a book that fully and authentically draws you into a place in time and this book certainly does that!  With my German family background, a German Studies degree and a whole lot of reading about World War 2 behind me, both fiction and non-fiction, it takes a lot to win me over and Killeen definitely did.

The relationship between  Sarah and the Captain is brilliantly written – there’s a real spark there, a genuine raw and equally complex connection as well as a passion to change the horrific world they live in.

The elitist fascist school for girls is a really interesting concept and isn’t something I have really given much thought to before, nor have I come across much about these schools until now. Such schools did exist, though there were only a few girls’ schools due to the juxtaposition of an academic education with the Nazi belief that women were destined to be wives and mothers and should therefore be given an education to reflect these roles. I’m really interested to find out more  – I love a bit of research!

The exploration of loyalty and betrayal is a powerful theme running throughout the narrative. I especially liked that Sarah’s response to her life in Germany is complex. Although she is a victim of Nazi ideology and experiences horrific things, she also considers herself German first and foremost and wants to be loyal to her country. She thinks long and hard about the consequences of her actions, whether her work with the Allies is for the greater good.

The appeal of belonging is equally well explored, Killeen shows that life is not black and white, that powerful regimes play on the human need to belong and that it can be an immense struggle to stay true to your beliefs in the face of what is offered: Sarah recognises how easy it would be to give in, to belong to the German Youth Movement due to her looks, how appealing the choreography of the Nazis movement is and especially for young people who are still trying to figure out their place in the world.

A real-life scientist of the time called Lise Meitner makes a significant appearance in the story based on her contribution to the discovery of fission and again, I learned something new. I hold up my hands and admit I know little about science throughout history and I certainly hadn’t come across this fascinating woman, who was part of changing the world forever but who was denied a Nobel Prize for Chemistry as she was forced to flee Germany and also  because she was a woman in a man’s world.

I really appreciated  Killen’s author note at the end where he explains his own experiences and motivation behind writing this book. He writes of summers spent with his mum’s German best friend and family, who he describes as gracious, loving and intensely pacifist and the challenges of getting older,  learning about the Holocaust and wondering, “Exactly how could these gentle people allow this to happen?” The message that human beings are incredibly complex and that history also depends on who’s telling the story, comes across with passion.

In the same end note, Killeen tells the reader of the amount and depth of research involved in writing Orphan Monster Spy and the quality of this is evident throughout the book. Yes, Sarah’s story is fiction but its fiction with a lot of sensitivity and a sound factual structure.

There is an abuse story line and I tend to disconnect with such content because of personal reasons, plus I also find that they are generally rarely written well/with meaning. In his note, Killeen talks about how Sarah’s world lives on today in insidious ways, how children and vulnerable people are still abused, how it is still so often concealed and even dismissed. I can see why Killeen has included this subplot (he has handled it well) and I stress that I think it’s an important topic to tackle, to create awareness of.

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And finally…

I love that there is so much yet to be explained and discovered and I can’t wait for the next in the series: Devil Darling Spy, published January 2020.

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