It’s hard to think of a novel I’ve read recently that seems more destined to make the leap into film than this one. Orphan Monster Spy–about a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl who becomes a spy at a Nazi boarding school after her mother’s murder in 1939–is a thrilling, risky, messy, wonderful firecracker of a novel. Dialogue is a weak point, and sometimes the novel’s little nods to the rise of Naziism in the U.S. today threatened to pull me out of this ostensibly historical fiction. But I can’t be too harsh–Matt Killeen works magic on every page, and Orphan Monster Spy is unlike anything else I’ve read. It’s technically YA, but I’d recommend it for anyone who loves taut, cinematic thrillers in the vein of Atomic Blonde (a.k.a. The Coldest City) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
You can read my full review below.
Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen
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- publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
- publication date: March 20, 2018
- length: 432 pages
- cover price: $18.99
Finally, the car came to a stop. With difficulty, Sarah opened her eyes, blinked to clear her vision, and looked up from her hiding place in the footwell. Her mother was slumped in the driver’s seat, her head against the top of the steering wheel. She was gazing through the spokes to where Sarah crouched. Her mother’s eyes were almost the same, wide and pretty. Her pupils were so big Sarah could nearly see herself in them. But now they seemed dull. Her mother was no longer in there.
—Orphan Monster Spy, page 1
Sometimes one book makes me fall in love with all books all over again. Orphan Monster Spy is that kind of book, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a damn good read. Its almost unbearable tension and sadness is balanced with humor and small victories that had me pumping my fist as much as I was biting my nails.
15-year-old Sarah doesn’t keep kosher or go to synagogue, and she even has a “good Aryan” Gentile father, but she can’t erase her mother’s Jewish heritage. Trapped in the Jewish ghettos of Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s, blonde and blue-eyed Sarah and her actress mother are targets of the increasingly hostile Nazi government. When they try to make a run for the Swiss border in 1939, just before Germany invades Poland, Sarah’s mother is brutally murdered, and Sarah finds herself on the run.
That’s where the book opens, and from there, the plot moves at the speed of light. Sarah saves an enigmatic British spy from suspicious Nazis, and in turn, he protects her, employs her, and places her undercover at an elite Nazi boarding school where she must befriend the daughter of a scientist building a “grapefruit bomb” (nuclear weapon) that could level whole cities in minutes.
The setup is quick and direct, leaving plenty of time to dig deep into Sarah’s character (fascinating) and life at the Nazi boarding school (even more fascinating). The high-stakes final act, in particular, is breathtaking.
I love the breadth and depth of YA novels that exist now, more than existed even a few years ago when I was a teen. (I’m only 23!) I don’t read much YA anymore, but I picked this one up because I like WWII history and literary-ish thrillers. Boy, was I not disappointed. I was shocked at how much depth and historical detail Killeen managed to cram into this book without compromising the taut, gritty narrative. It’s a YA book that feels perfectly YA (as I define it: young protagonist, fast pace), but it’s unique and edgy enough that I’d also recommend it to someone who thinks they’re above YA. (Like myself, sort of.)
A couple of things don’t ring so true, though.
One, Killeen does the thing I hate in multilingual novels: he has characters say things in their native language (mostly German, here) and then has them immediately “repeat it” in English. It doesn’t make any sense and I wish authors would either only use words that I could pick up through context clues or would just use the English versions. I know it’s set in Germany; I don’t need to be constantly yanked out of the story by something that feels like the author being clever instead of being authentic to the characters.
Two, speaking of being authentic, this book is at times heavy-handed with its social commentary at the expense of its characters. I struggled with how to phrase this criticism because Orphan Monster Spy’s subject matter is inherently timely and social justice-y and I don’t want to ding it for that. That’s part of why I chose to read it, after all, and I wish more stories faced anti-Semitism and oppression as head-on as this one does. Still, there are times where it’s so blatant it practically breaks the fourth wall.
For example, in one conversation with Elsa, the Nazi scientist’s daughter whom Sarah is tasked with befriending, Elsa lets slip that America is full of Nazis. Sarah, deep in character as another good Nazi girl, reminds Elsa that America is not to be trusted. Elsa just laughs and tells her that American Nazis are even more dangerous than German ones because they have to hide their true colors.
I mean, I can’t fault Killeen’s accuracy on that count, but it’s such a transparent aside that it felt like it had been sung out by the gospel Greek chorus from Hercules. (It certainly doesn’t feel like natural conversation.)
In the end, though, this book is so dazzlingly ambitious, smart, and compulsively readable that those things barely impacted my enjoyment of it.
Orphan Monster Spy is a desperate book for desperate times; its mission statement–take down Nazis, get revenge, survive–shouldn’t feel so relevant in 2018, but it does. For those tired of fighting the good fight, this book is a heady infusion of entertainment, energy, and pure steel. 4/5 stars.
My copy of Orphan Monster Spy came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.