Magda, the debut novel by the founder of Peirene Press, tells the ‘brutal story’ of Magda, the wife of notorious Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Ziervogel has examined Magda’s story ‘as a vehicle to examine the psychology behind familial murder, and to explore deep-rooted and destructive relationships between mothers and their daughters’. ‘Seeking to understand the actions of a ruthless woman,’ the press release tells us, ‘Ziervogel adds context to Magda’s shocking story, encouraging the reader to view it with fresh eyes’.
The book opens with the troubled aspects of the Goebbels’ lives present from the outset: ‘Magda enters Joseph’s study without knocking. Joseph is pacing back and forth… He doesn’t stop when his wife comes in’. Something unsettling makes itself known in the very bones of the story, and remains throughout. After this short scene, Magda gathers her and Joseph’s six children around her in order to tell them about the long journey they are about to embark on: ‘”We might pass Uncle Adolf’s house,” replies Magda. “But we are going further this time.”‘
In the next chapter, Ziervogel then goes on to examine Magda’s own upbringing, as a child of illegitimate status, in a strict Belgian convent. She paints a short picture of Magda’s troubled childhood, indoctrinated by the nuns, something of a bully ‘behind these thick convent walls’, and the way in which she continually self-harms. Magda is a very dark book, as one might expect given the subject matter, and Ziervogel highlights the way in which almost every character is troubled in some way. In fact, the entire book is filled with cruelty. Some of the scenes throughout are harrowing and rather horrendous, and the novella does not make for easy reading. These vignettes come like sharp shocks, and the sheer amount of cruelty which has been crammed into just a few pages is quite overwhelming at times.
In some ways, Ziervogel has been rather clever with her mixture of fact and fiction, but it becomes a little annoying as far as the reader is concerned, in that no allusion to, or explanation of, which elements are made up merely of poetic licence has been included. We learn very little about Joseph Goebbels throughout, an aspect which would certainly have made the story stronger. The scenes which include him gloss over his character somewhat, and whilst the novella focuses mainly upon Magda herself, the inclusion of her husband may have made her motives in the murder of her children a little clearer.
Magda is a short book, more a novella than a novel, and is split into eight different sections, which range from ‘The Preparation’ and ‘The Girl Behind the Convent Walls’ to ‘The Pillbox’ and ‘The Final Task’. Herein are where the problems lie. Ziervogel has attempted to use several different narrative techniques throughout – the third person omniscient, diary entries supposedly written by the fourteen-year-old Helga Goebbels, and a first person monologue from the perspective of Magda’s mother. These differing techniques are interesting to a point, but they do not effortlessly tie together. Some of the literary devices used are traditional, and others, as in the monologue, are not. Here, any movements made by Magda’s mother are shown in brackets – for example, ‘(The old woman adjusts her bag on her lap.)’ and ‘(She sniffles.)’. Again, the juxtaposition between two very conflicting ways of writing does not quite gel.
Whilst Magda is written well, some of the details throughout do not feel realistic. During the monologue of Magda’s mother, some sentences feel as though they would be more at home during an episode of Eastenders than in the conversation of an ageing woman after the Second World War: ‘At that moment I didn’t give a fig. About the neighbours or nothing’. Helga’s diary entries, too, do not feel realistic, and it is difficult to believe that a young teenage girl could write in the same vein as these letters to ‘Dear Gretchen’. The relationships which Ziervogel seems so keen to portray are often underdeveloped, and sadly feel rather cliched in consequence.
Magda is not a bad book by any means – in fact, its concept is incredibly interesting – but there is too much going on, both in terms of style and storyline, to enable it to come to fruition and reach its full potential. The scope of the novella feels a little too overambitious, and one cannot help but think that the book would have been more engaging in its current style had it been double, or even triple, its length. The execution of the story is not tight enough and therefore feels a little lacking at times, and it is as though the story is trying to do too much in too restricted a space.