Not to be Overlooked
By Katie Simpson and Natalia Alvarez
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads! This week’s column covers a review of Caging Skies by Christine Leunens and The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling.
Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
JoJo Rabbit, the 2019 dark comedy starring Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson, has become one of my favourite movies of all time, so I had to read the book that inspired it: Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. Although very different in tone and comedy style, I also adored the book, but I’ve only ever been met blank faces when I say, “have you heard of Caging Skies, the book that inspired JoJo Rabbit?” So, I’m here to shout about it!
The story is set during the height of Hitler’s rule in the 1940s and is told by Johannes, a member of the Hitler Youth. Johannes idolises Hitler, so much so that he won’t have his cautious mother say a single bad word against the man. When Johannes is injured in a raid and is ordered to rest at home, he discovers that he’s not alone in the house. Elsa, a Jewish girl being secretly cared for by Johannes’ parents, is hiding within the walls.
The story follows Johannes’ discovery of the girl, his hatred towards her, his intrigue and eventually, his obsession. Elsa becomes everything Johannes, as a naive boy, could want in his first crush but can he betray his idol and accept the fact that she’s Jewish?
After watching the comical satire of JoJo Rabbit, I expected a similar tone from the book. What I found was almost the complete opposite. Leunens has created two compelling yet frustrating characters who lure you into their awful, messy love story.
There are a handful of differences between the film and the book: Johannes is older in the book, he has a hands-on father figure (his father is absent in the film) and there are much more in-depth conversations between himself and Elsa, allowing the reader to watch them grow over a lengthier period of time. What I found most interesting was Leunens’ portrayal of domestic manipulation and toxicity, something that’s brushed off under the guise of comedy in the film.
Overall, Leunens has written an intriguing narrative against a tragic historical and political backdrop. While the film provides a comical and fairly childish perspective of war, religion and relationships, the novel acknowledges that these children fast become adults living through a war, fighting and loving in equal measure.
The Death of Jane Lawrence By Caitlin Starling
I’ve always loved a good gothic novel. They consistently follow the same format at their core (protagonist ignores all warning signs to stay away from the dark and scary manor where bad things happen, then spends the remainder of the story trying to get themselves out of the situation) yet they can be so mesmerising if done correctly. This effect has been achieved in the new novel published in October 2021 by St. Martin’s Press, The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling. Equal parts romantic and horrific, we join our protagonist Jane as she unravels the secrets of her new husband and his family’s creepy manor.
We meet Jane Shoringfield as an orphaned girl in an imagined post-war Britain who finds herself in need of an arranged marriage. Jane quickly sets her sights on the elusive Doctor Augustine Lawrence, despite her knowledge that the Doctor has shown no desire to marry. She proposes the two join in a mutually beneficial business deal of sorts; Jane will utilise her skills as an accountant and assist the doctor in any other business related matters while Doctor Lawrence will be provided free help and a wife to keep others from asking about his marital status.
While Doctor Lawrence is initially reluctant, Jane’s overabundance of brilliant qualities, paired with her level-headedness when assisting in a particularly bloody surgery, eventually wins him over. His agreement comes only after Jane promises never to visit his ancestral home, Lindridge Hall, where the Doctor sleeps every night.
As the two learn more about each other leading up to their wedding, they develop romantic feelings, giving their business arrangement the potential for something more. Things begin to go wrong when a mishap on their wedding day sends the pair to Lindridge Hall and eventually leads to Jane having no choice but to spend the night there.
Here, Jane sees her even-tempered, good-natured husband transformed into a man she hardly recognizes. She hears voices in the night and begins to see things she isn’t sure are real. Jane is left to grapple with the knowledge that she may not know or trust her husband at all.
I found myself completely invested in Jane’s dilemma and couldn’t have put this book down if I had wanted to. I greatly enjoyed this novel for its new twist on the gothic genre and think many readers will find themselves equally immersed in the story that unfolds before them.