One word that comes to mind when I think of Carry Me is “ambitious”. A novel covering two world wars, as well as the complex period between them. A novel covering this period over England, Germany, Ireland, and even a bit of America. It’s a lot and it feels like both a lot and not that a lot as you’re reading it.
Our narrator is Billy – born Hermann Lange but dubbed Billy during World War One, while living in England with his mother, after his father, a German citizen is interned in London. Billy is a child during World War One and when his family finds refuge in Germany following the war. In the 1930s he is a young man, still in Germany, coming of age as the Nazis gain power, and falling in love with Karin, the daughter of his family’s patron, a German-Jewish baron.
Billy is a strong and likeable narrator. His story continuously circles back to Karin. Their families are linked in half a dozen different ways. His parents both work for the baron and his wife. Billy and Karin are born in the same room, a year apart, in one of the baron’s homes, which becomes Billy’s first home. As children, Karin introduces Billy to the works of Karl May and they share a fascination with the American West.
I’ve never read May’s Winnetou books and had never heard of them before I visited Germany for the first time. But they have apparently broadly shaped Germany’s idea of North America and the West, especially in the early 20th century when travel between Europe and North America was less common. Billy grows up with maps of el llano on his bedroom wall – dreaming of the Wild West. It is always in the back of his mind that one day he will go there; it is a magical place of escape, even as he grows up, and even more so as the Nazis grow in power.
The whole novel is strong and as it goes back and forth between timelines – Billy’s childhood and World War One experience and 1938 as Billy and Karin begin to attempt to leave Germany – it remains strong in both sections. Whatever section, I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened. World War stories have been told a lot so I appreciated Behrens finding new angles. The story of Germans in England (Billy and his mother are not German but suffer because his father is nominally one) is one I hadn’t heard much before. And the story of Germany in between the wars is also one I’ve only encountered once before in fiction. (Erich Maria Remarque’s The Road Back.
Billy doesn’t position himself as a hero. He paints those around him with admirable strokes. The larger-than-life figure Karin is in his life. His mother and father, who endure hardship but remain strong. The baron who is fabulously wealthy and powerful, until his Jewishness leaves him suddenly vulnerable, even as no one around him can fathom the rising evil in their country. The final scenes in Germany set in 1938 are horrifying and yet feel so honest as Billy and his family realize just how much has changed. It is a subtle look at how a country and a people can allow a party like the Nazis to come to power and it feels even more urgent and important today as we see fascism and Nazis in the news once more.
I will definitely be reading more from Behrens.