The Boston Phoenix
September 9 - 16, 1999

[Book Reviews]

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Hitler's Niece, by Ron Hansen

HarperCollins, 310 pages, $25.

Hitler's Niece "[A]ll I ever seem to do is have dinner with older men," whines Geli, the title figure in Ron Hansen's clumsy Hitler's Niece. That complaint is the key to the failure of this novel. The "older men" in question are all the heavyweight baddies of the Holocaust, and Geli is nothing but an excuse to tell us interesting things Hansen has learned about them in his research (as detailed in his author's note).

Geli, 19 years Hitler's junior, really existed and was murdered or committed suicide, depending on which historical report you accept. This makes for a fascinating point of departure. No doubt her rumored affair with her uncle would have made for an excellent novel in the right hands, but here her character is woefully underwritten; she is a protagonist without an inner life for the entire first half of the novel, and when she does begin to think about her situation, she doesn't get far.

Hansen is doomed by the old problem of writing across gender, perhaps a skill that separates minor-league writers from the sluggers. Women in this novel are apt to say aloud things like "I have a tiny brain." Geli, a would-be Lolita who lets her uncle spank her erotically at age 19, keeps silent but notes to herself that now "the shift of power was complete."

If Geli is not much of a character, a girl whose actions are entirely reactions, it is because Hansen is so preoccupied with pouring evidence of research into the text. In addition to providing us with colorful stories about Hitler's early years (his troubles stem from two sources: his mother died after a Jewish doctor gave poor advice, and he never got accepted to art school), Hansen introduces us to Goering, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, and Rohm. This is handled through clunky fact-dumping: whenever she encounters someone new, Geli remembers that she had once been "told" their complete history -- that Ernst Rohm, for instance, was into the occult and young boys, hated Jews and women, was financed by rich industrialists, had a defense force of 100,000 men, and fled to Bolivia. The apex of this expository awkwardness comes when Goebbels reads excerpts from his own diary aloud.

Amid all this, the hook is supposed to be the incestuous relationship between Hitler and Geli. From the first spank (100 pages in), it is a tortured mess; if titillation is what you want, you'll be pleased with their ultimate creepy sex scene. But for the sake of tension or forward motion, Hansen should have kept exploring the potentially potent triangle between the uncle, the niece, and the chauffeur who loves her.

At one point, Hansen's Hitler says, "I have trouble with proportions." In the end, offering too little story and too much exposition, Hansen has the same problem himself.

-- David Valdes Greenwood

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