I attended a Hot Key Bloggers Brunch last week, in which Lucy Adlington acted as moderator to a discussion with Heather Morris, author of the best-selling Tattooist of Auschwitz. I was excited to hear more about Cilka’s Journey, the followup to Morris’s runaway bestseller, but also delighted to be given a signed copy of The Red Ribbon, Adlington’s novel set in Birchwood, better known as Auschwitz-Birkenau
Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla. In another life we might have all been friends together. But this was Birchwood.
As fourteen-year-old Ella begins her first day at work she steps into a world of silks, seams, scissors, pins, hems and trimmings. She is a dressmaker, but this is no ordinary sewing workshop. Hers are no ordinary clients. Ella has joined the seamstresses of Birkenau-Auschwitz.
Every dress she makes could be the difference between life and death. And this place is all about survival.
Ella seeks refuge from this reality, and from haunting memories, in her work and in the world of fashion and fabrics. She is faced with painful decisions about how far she is prepared to go to survive.
Is her love of clothes and creativity nothing more than collaboration with her captors, or is it a means of staying alive?
Will she fight for herself alone, or will she trust the importance of an ever-deepening friendship with Rose?
One thing weaves through the colours of couture gowns and camp mud – a red ribbon, given to Ella as a symbol of hope.
This book was a really heartbreaking and interesting look at life for young prisoners in Birchwood, intertwined with a long-running theme of hope that underpins everything Ella, the main character, does in her long imprisonment in the concentration camp.
Ella and Rose, the two main characters, are unlikely friends in a horrendous place, grasping tightly to anything they can find to give themselves hope in the midst of one of the worst atrocities of human history. This book deftly weaves their story of friendship and hope with the tales of other women in Birchwood, from Guard Carla to Boss Marta, and with the underpinning structure of Ella’s dream to open a dress shop once she gets out of Birchwood.
There is so much going on here – it’s hard to actually take in the atrocities of concentration camps, and the casual dehumanisation of the prisoners – but Adlington deftly highlights the aspects of the camp that she wants to show the reader. The frequent divergences into reveries of food serve to underpin the constant hunger that plagues Ella’s every moment, and the casual violence from guards emphasises the dehumanisation of the prisoners.
On top of that, though, Adlington’s work as a clothes historian shines through very clearly. Ella’s intention to be a dressmaker and her position as a seamstress in the upper tailoring studio allow the narrative to muse on the importance of clothes, of fashion, of identity. Referring to prisoners as Stripeys and guards as Them, the distinction between the two classes of people is clear. There are some really heartrending thoughts on what clothes mean to people, what it is to wear clothes, how crucial fashions are to who we are as people. Hearing Adlington speak on that last week was really eye-opening. Clothes can tell us so much about who a person is, how they live, what they like… Why isn’t this given more thought?
The friendship between Ella and Rose was one of the strongest parts of the book, and the not knowing which pervaded the latter parts of the book was heartbreaking in its own way. I loved the strength of friendship between these two girls, the way they created stories to take themselves away from the horror they were living in. Loads to really love here.
My only complaint is that the final parts of the book felt somewhat… twee? For want of a better word. I’m not sure. I felt like the ending wasn’t quite what it needed to be. But I can also understand the reasoning for the choices made in how to end the book, so I don’t think that’s a major difficulty – just not what I would have done.
A really heartbreaking and thought-provoking book, it could also serve as a good primer for anyone who doesn’t know a lot about the concentration camps. Well worth the read, and I’m looking forward to Adlington’s next book, about a refugee fleeing WWII.