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Psychiatrist Martin Kirsch seems to have everything going for him. He's building a successful career in Berlin and is soon to be married. However, a chance encounter with a beautiful woman threatens to become something more serious when the woman later turns up in the medical unit attached to the hospital Kirsch works at. She's been found unconscious in woodland outside Berlin, the only thing on her is a handbill for a lecture to be delivered by eminent physicist Albert Einstein.
Intrigued by the woman, Kirsch contrives to have her admitted to the psychiatric ward and his quest to find out who she is and what happened to her takes him across Europe. This is not the only secret Kirsch is guarding; will Martin be able to find out the truth about the mystery woman before his own painful secret is revealed?
"The Einstein Girl" is ostensibly a thriller but it has so many layers that it almost defies categorisation. The story was inspired by the letters that made up a correspondence between Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric, his Serbian first wife and also a physicist but Philip Sington has used them to create a compelling and credible piece of fiction.
Set for the main part in 1930s Berlin, the thing that struck me most was not the intriguing storyline or the excellent characterisation, but the superb evocation of Germany at the time. From the descriptions of riding in crowded trams during the rush hour - the smell of wet leather almost jumped off the page - to smoky dance clubs, there was such a brilliant sense of place and time. In comparison the scenes set outside of Berlin, where Kirsch's parents live in the countryside, were a relief from the pressure of the city. Sington really captures the atmosphere of impending doom as Hitler gradually moves towards acquiring the power and influence he needs to become Chancellor, so the scenes that take place outside Berlin show people who are concerned with matters other than politics, where the personal sphere is not overshadowed by the public one. Similarly, when Kirsch travels to Zurich to interview Mileva Maric about a former pupil, I could feel the sense of relief as kirsch escapes the city and is able to breathe easily in the mountains, free from the pressures he's facing in Berlin.
Kirsch is a fantastic character and I appreciated the way that the reader is introduced to him gradually; it is not only the mystery woman who has a hidden story, Kirsch also has secrets and his own fascinating background is as much part of the plot as hers. This is typical of the narration generally as the reader is continually asked to consider where the truth really lies. During his enquiries into the girl's identity, it soon becomes clear that somebody is not telling the truth but, in an echo of Kirsch's job, there is the uncertainty as to whether this is deliberate or not. Interspersed with the main narrative there are excerpts of letters that start to shed light on the "Einstein girl's" background but Sington allows these to be continue to be ambiguous almost to the end of the novel. This is slick stuff and the clever narrative style keeping the reader guessing until the very end.
Writing a piece of fiction based on real people can be a controversial endeavour but by focusing mainly on the people around Einstein rather than concentrating on the man himself I think Sington manages to avoid criticism.
As well as being an exciting and suspenseful story based around identifying the woman, "The Einstein Girl" is a brilliant account of the Nazis plans for people with mental health problems and the difficult situation health professionals found themselves in. It also looks at changing practices in the treatment of people with mental illnesses and how attitudes have changed. What I found less interesting, on a personal level, and perhaps too detailed for a novel, were the lengthy references to Einstein's work and I must admit to skimming these pages.
"The Einstein Girl" is a stylish and well researched thriller that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. I enjoyed it immensely.