Susanne Gervay, Heroes of the Secret Underground, HarperCollins Publishers, April 2021, 240 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781460758335
Susanne Gervay is a passionate writer, particularly regarding her Hungarian heritage, and never more so than in this story. Gervay interweaves a myriad of historical incidents, persons, and cultural symbols, along with her characters from the past and the present, into a journey that spirits the children from Sydney 2000, back to Nazi occupied Budapest in 1944.
Twelve-year-old Louie, Bert and Teddy, who is only four, live with their loving grandparents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors, who run a pleasingly old fashioned hotel in Sydney. The children’s parents are musicians, currently off touring the world as they perform in concerts celebrating the International Year for the Culture of Peace.
The journey is a surreal one, at times as haunting as Dante’s Inferno, that takes Louie, Bert and Teddy through, not a looking glass, nor a wardrobe, but a box of shoes. Shoes of all types, that have been worn and discarded. The children learn the origin of these before they are returned to the attic of the Majestic Hotel in Sydney.
The book begins with a flashback to 1944. Barely more than children, Verushka and Zoltan experience the cruelty of the Nazi occupiers. It becomes clear in the following chapters that these two are the grandparents of the modern story. Louie has an unnerving experience on a normal Sydney summer’s day, when a ghostly girl drops a beautiful locket into her possession. It is the same as that torn from Verushka in the flashback, although Louie knows nothing of that.
The frightening, dangerous, but ultimately uplifting journey of the children is told between the harsh realities of war and something more like magical realism. Naomi, the ghost girl, is a courageous guide on the journey, and all three children suffer great distress and act bravely through their ordeal, alongside masses of displaced children of the Holocaust. They also learn first-hand what it is that their grandparents suffered, survived and kept mostly secret from the children.
There is a lot to digest in this story, but fast pacing and rich storytelling pull the reader through. A glossary at the end of the book contains explanations of relevant historical and cultural details which will enhance readers’ understanding of the novel, and of the intriguing symbols employed by the author.
Reviewed by Marita Thomson