The Porcelain Maker by Sarah Freethy

The Porcelain Maker is a dual timeline historical novel, split between the 1930s and 1990s, set mostly in Germany. It concerns the lives of talented German artist Bettina Vogel, and Austrian architect and sculptor Max Ehrlich who is Jewish. They meet while at art school and fall in love, but this is not a good time to be any kind of artist in Germany as the Nazis tighten their grip on all aspects of life and culture. Only with hindsight do we know how dangerous it would be to remain, but getting out was both difficult and expensive. Bettina and Max made plans to escape, but before they could get away Max was captured and sent to Dachau, and only his skills as a sculptor saved him from certain death.

The modern part of the story concerns Bettina’s daughter Clara and her search for the identity of her father. For some unfathomable reason, her mother refused to name him and would not discuss what happened all those years before. On a trip to America where some of the Allach porcelain figurines are up for auction, Clara discovers a photo that helps her get to the bottom of the mystery.   

I was surprised to learn that the porcelain factory at Dachau actually existed as I had never come across if before. I am not normally a fan of fiction set during this period, but The Porcelain Maker has a slightly different emphasis than usual, and I enjoyed the focus on art rather than the horrors that took place at the camp. I was shocked and surprised how early in the decade, many years before the outbreak of war, the Nazis were controlling every aspect of life for their own nefarious and twisted ends.

The characters are well developed and believable, the art scene in Berlin in the 30s vividly evoked, and there is a good balance between the different timelines with neither overshadowing the other. Some aspects of the narrative were difficult to read, and the overwhelming atmosphere of tension and menace brought home to me what it must actually have been like to live through this period in history. The writing is very assured for a debut novel, the ending rounds it all off nicely, and I look forward to reading the next book by this writer. Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.