Holly Müller’s My Own Dear Brother is an emotionally difficult book to read, but only because of the subject it covers.

The setting is Nazi-controlled Austria, and we’re in the last throes of World War II. Our “heroes” are two of the most odious children in fiction. There’s Anton, a proud member of the Hitler Youth and a real troublemaker, and Ursula, who idolises her sociopath-in-training older brother.

In the early chapters, I was gripped by an absolute dislike of the characters, a feeling solidified by a truly heartbreaking sequence in which a kitten is drowned. They are both selfish, cruel, and like most preteens, alarmingly self-centred.

I found Anton and Ursula’s actions hit a little too close to home. Anton’s character described my older brother as we were growing up. He thrilled at tormenting little animals, and loved to shoot friendly birds with a slingshot he’d crafted just for that purpose.

Our parents were in the midst of a divorce, and with my five-year-old world in turmoil, I clung to my older brother. I idolised him. But he was so angry at everything that he longed to control whatever he could, which included defenceless animals and me.

My own experiences allowed me to empathise with Ursula and understand why she forgives her brother’s obvious faults. It’s also why, after those early chapters, their story becomes so compelling.

My Own Dear Brother toys with the concept of whether people are already broken at birth. Are all humans born wanting to torment, maim and kill? I want to believe we aren’t, but there’s no clear-cut answer to that.

Then the book gets into the nature-or-nurture question. Though the story starts out hard to read, it builds beyond those chapters into something truly worthwhile, as the characters grow beyond their troubling introductions.

Halfway through, the book becomes a terrific page-turner. Even knowing what I know about WWII and its atrocities from school, this story turned into one that I didn’t want to look away from.

str2_leighbrotherR_ma_1_coverMy grandparents lived and fought that war. I rile at the stupidity of my younger self for not taking the time or the initiative to learn more of their first-hand experiences from the war. There were stories told, but being so young I didn’t think to write down what was shared.

Müller builds her world around history, facts and events we know happened. From the forced labour camps, the experimentation on humans, the hospitals where anyone deemed mentally deficient was sent for “treatment” (just another word for death).

Perhaps she sanitises things too much, but Müller weaves a compelling story that is breathtaking, sad and impressive. For a debut, it’s one hell of a way to come on stage.

What was unique and refreshing for me was the story of WWII from the Axis point of view, instead of from within the midst of fighting. It’s really a story centring on a family in a village within a conquered country, with people just trying to get on with their lives.

In the midst of horror, some will lift themselves up by pushing others down. And having read accounts of escapees from North Korea, I know that informant types are still among us, those who are willing to get ahead at anybody’s expense.

There is some comeuppance meted out, but like life, others make it through unscathed. That’s another thing that makes Müller’s My Own Dear Brother such a good read – not everything ends being tied up neatly or nicely.

Maybe there’s an Ursula in each of us, a self-hating person who writhes at our inner monologues, things we’d be mortified to have others hear, ashamed and scandalous, desperate to ensure that others never know the sins we’ve committed. In the end, I felt better for having read My Own Dear Brother, to be reminded to be kind to others, and to honour our collective past lest we repeat it.

My Own Dear Brother

Author: Holly Müller
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus, fiction