Already a big fan of Catherine Bailey's previous books Black Diamonds and The Secret Room, I was enthralled by this extraordinary true story of resistance and survival during the Second World War. It's a gripping account of two small boys forcibly taken from their mother Fey, after her father is executed for his part in a foiled assassination plot against Hitler. Fey herself is arrested by the Nazis and begins a terrifying existence, interred in various concentration camps across Europe.
The Lost Boys is so harrowing that there were moments when I had to put the book down, take a deep breath and reflect. Had this been a novel, I might have found such constant battering faced by the young woman whose story it is scarcely credible. Yet it is true. Bailey draws her tale from diaries, letters and interviews with survivors. What she has discovered shines a powerful light on the unimaginable sadism of the Nazis in retreat, as they drove their captives out of the camps on death marches... This central section of the book, covering Fey’s journey as a so-called “prisoner of kin”, reads like a terrifying thriller... The Lost Boys, written with the cooperation of Roberto and Corrado, is an important book, and one that goes some way to revealing the many courageous anti-Hitler elements in Germany. But the impression it leaves is overwhelmingly one of barbarity, sadism and utter madness.
Fey von Hassell and Bailey essentially recount the same story, but the two books are a perfect example of the subtle and important differences between memoir and biography. Fey’s touching and elegant account is told from a single perspective, while Bailey’s is a richer and deeper portrait, as if pulling back, in a film, from a tight shot to a wider landscape. The relationship between Fey and Alex von Stauffenberg is given considerably more emphasis by Bailey, with the suggestion that it was primarily duty that caused Fey to resume her marriage at the end of the war, while in her own memoir Fey herself described finding her husband again with “utter joy and amazement”. Diaries, letters, memoirs and conversations with Corrado and Roberto, now in their 70s, as well as other friends and relations of the family, give Bailey’s version depth. Like A Mother’s War, The Lost Boys is a gripping read.
For Bailey, widely admired for her sharp-nosed investigations of skulduggery and dysfunction in Edwardian country houses, The Lost Boys marks a significant change of direction. She has taken the materials of Fey von Hassell’s original story, published in 1990 as A Mother’s War, and substantially developed these with the aid of extensive archival research. As in her earlier works, the narrative is peerless in its fluency. Bailey once again skilfully handles the detail and displays an iron grasp of the historical context. As for Roberto and Corrado, the circumstances in which Fey was eventually reunited with them are far too moving for me to include a spoiler here.
Catherine Bailey has already written two remarkable works of 20th-century history in Black Diamonds, the tale of the rise and fall of a Yorkshire mine-owning dynasty, and The Secret Rooms, an astonishing revelation of English upper-class dysfunction in the 1910s and 1920s. In her new book, she uses the prism of one German-Italian family’s experience and the fate of two small boys to illuminate the chaos of the final months of the Second World War.
When that plan went awry, he ordered that the Prominenten be liquidated. A race ensued between Nazi executioners and American liberators. The Lost Boys is written like a suspense novel, with gaps in the historical evidence filled through artistic licence. Given that it’s presented as a story, it would be wrong to give away the dramatic ending. Leaving aside her lack of critical insight, Bailey has a knack for bringing characters to life and conveying tension. Yet this is still a relatively simple story that does not need to be 400 pages long. It would have been more riveting if half the length. Too often, extraneous detail interrupts an otherwise pacey tale.