When I was twelve, I was obsessed with Anne Frank’s diary, and the life of a girl around my age whose life was so unutterably different from mine, hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. After reading a few reviews of The Cut Out Girl (and feeling in need of reading something totally unrelated to my research), I thought I’d return to occupied Holland for a rather different story. Bart Van Es’s book won the 2018 Costa prize for biography, and it’s one of those books which is made particularly interesting because its biographical subject is not only the historical one but also the writer himself.
Bart Van Es traces the story of Lien, a young girl taken in by his grandparents in Nazi-occupied Holland, of whom he only knew a little due to a subsequent family rift. Lien is – compared with Anne Frank, say – one of the lucky ones: she survives the war, and Van Es interviewed her many times and builds a relationship with her as he researches the book. Yet as the narrative makes clear, ‘lucky’ is subjective. Lien was given into the care of the Van Es family by her parents, aware of what was happening, heart-rendingly inviting them to effectively become her parents. Her parents did not survive the war, and Lien chooses not to trace their fates until long after the war, but although she is hidden in plain sight among the Van Es children, she is not safe, and moves around during the war, to other, much less happy homes and sometimes going on the run. Lien’s story as she tells it to Van Es is one of gradual recollection, of memories long buried, and of the increasing numbness of a child whose childhood is taken from her along with her family, home and possessions.
Van Es is Professor of Renaissance Literature at Oxford, and though this is a very accessible book, aspects of his academic approach shine through: this is a topic far from his research, but he is methodical in outlining, for example, the history of Jews in the Netherlands, though with a pleasantly light touch. The narrative is sparse and generally unjudgemental, but he does attempt to draw some conclusions, both about the psychological effect on Lien and other hidden children, and also about the situation of the country during the war. He suggests that perhaps the reason there were so many Dutch collaborators, and that so many Jews were turned over to the Nazi authorities, was due to the unusually tolerant, ‘live and let live’ nature of the citizens, who were too ready to accept the situation.
Lien’s life from her happy early years with her parents due to her old age is documented, permitting an insight into ways in which childhood trauma can be managed, and with meditation, therapy and support groups Lien has worked hard to overcome her past, though it has taken most of her life. The ‘cut out girl’ of the title is a figure pasted into a scrapbook which Lien has had nearly all her life, a figure who seems not quite to belong to her background, as if she is always displaced. The metaphor works well, and is maintained throughout the narrative, as the scrapbook, filled with doggerel verse from friends of different periods of her life, is a constant thread to which both Lien and Van Es return. The sense, at the end, though, is that Lien has finally found a place in the world where she is no longer ‘cut out’, but truly at home.