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Monday, August 24, 2009

Memory, Physics and Identity: "The Einstein Girl" by Philip Sington (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Philip Sington Website
Read an excerpt and watch the book trailer
Order "The Einstein Girl" HERE(US) and HERE(UK/Overseas)

The title and blurb of this book attracted my attention sometime ago and while an inquiry about an arc got nowhere, the excerpt linked above and especially the magnificent trailer - that one it's really great and shows how effective book trailers are when done "right"- made me order the book from the link above.

On arrival it jumped to the top of the reading queue and it turned out to be a superb historical thriller with strong associational content for sff fans and a major surprise for 2009. I also bought the author's previous novel Zoia's Gold and I plan to read it soon.

Martin Kirsch is a psychiatrist in Berlin October 1932 who cares about the welfare of his patients even to the extent of putting his career at risk by interfering with the cruel (however well intended) experiments of his immediate superior.

A former army surgeon whose WW1 wounds, both physical and psychological, scarred him for life and made him turn to psychiatry, engaged to the rich local girl and shadowed by the "ghost" of his charismatic brother Max who is presumed dead in the war and who was an amateur physicist and Einstein's devotee, Dr. Kirsch brought rigorous and outside thoughts to the practice of psychiatry and his one academic article attracted quite a lot of attention by challenging the foundations of his profession.

While the clinic director uses this to put pressure on him to resign after one too many incidents involving Martin's opposition to brutal methods of "treatment", one "obscure" anthropological researcher from The Kaiser Wilhelm institute, Eugene Fischer, has big plans for Martin - after all if patients are not really treatable and a lot of mental disturbances are inherited, well the good of the *race* implies other measures have to be taken and when the political climate changes in January 1933, Martin finds himself thrust to the forefront of events...

Despite his engagement, Martin becomes fascinated with a girl he meets by chance when he gets lost in a seedier part of Berlin and then later at a dance in a neighborhood cafe. She looks "Slavic" and tells him her name is Elisabeth. Later she turns out to be the nameless "Einstein Girl", found unconscious in the woods near Einstein's town house in a Berlin suburb with just a pamphlet about a lecture given by the famous physicist.

Martin schemes to get the girl into his care and together they try and reconstitute who is she, and why she came to Berlin. Of course the truth is not straightforward and with both the political and the personal intruding, Martin's time to help the girl is growing short.

"The Einstein Girl" stands at almost 400 pages following Martin's pov for most of it, except for interludes in letters and a "memoir" of the girl of the title as well as some letters from an un-named character, though we will guess his identity soon. A great ending with a small epilogue detailing the fates of the "real historical people" involved crowns this superb novel.

"The Einstein Girl" is a page turner, smart and with superb historical atmosphere, while the two main characters will stay with you for a long time. It is also a novel that takes place at the confluence of the personal with the political and the confluence of imagination with reality.

In a time of epochal and violent change when certainties have crumbled, Albert Einstein's theories of relativity, while arcane and hard to understand for the regular people, are interpreted by "pundits" in the social and political sphere as meaning the loss of a belief in "certainty or in the absolute..". Since before the war, Martin has encountered Einstein's work through his brother Max, and while the technical aspects elude him, he knows enough to be fascinated, especially when "Elisabeth" turns to have a connection with the modern icon.

And here we come to one of the crucial issues tackled in the novel, the notion of identity, of "who we are" and how do we know it - the methods to treat cases of mental instability or amnesia at the time were very crude and often brutal, and while some doctors like Martin's original "nemesis" Dr. Mehring seemed to at least believe in them, others like the Clinic's director, cynical Dr. Bonhoeffer are satisfied that the brutalized patients become docile.

Another "major" issue, the inheritance of genius - or undesirable traits for that matter - rears its head and Martin again gets in the middle of it with Eugene Fisher, his patron and protector to be, on one side and Einstein's youngest son from his first marriage to Serbian mathematician Mileva Maric who is currently a mental patient in Zurich, on the other.

So in a nutshell, we have three major existential issues that even today are of extreme importance, headline making as well as being part of the "bread and butter" of sff - the Laws of Physics and Relativity vs Quantum Mechanics, Consciousness and Genetics.

"Elisabeth" as we can call the title girl, though in time we find out her true name and more, is also a very fascinating person and while for a large part of the novel she is a "blank", her history inserted at crucial points makes great reading and slowly she becomes a very powerful character to complement Martin.

Add in fascinating portraits of Einstein himself, of his friend and collaborator Max von Laue, his former wife Mileva and of course of Eduard and we get this unbelievably good novel that manages to both be a page turner you do not want to put down, recreate superbly a historical era of such importance and fascination as Berlin of late 1932 and early 1933 and "transcend" the sub-genre by its treatment of the major existential issues above.



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