Elizabeth Gifford’s debut novel, Secrets of the Sea House, was a sweeping, beautiful work, imbued with myth and mystery; it was shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown award in 2014 and was one of my personal favourites that year. Gifford is a talented writer with the ability to create satisfying stories and haunting atmosphere from small fragments of history. Since her second novel, Return to Fourwinds, I’ve been waiting to see what she does next. The Good Doctor of Warsaw represents a change – perhaps a move forward – in her work.
Beginning in Warsaw as the Second World War looms, the novel tells the story of Dr Janusz Korczak, a real life figure who ran an orphanage in what became the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw (the largest in Nazi occupied Europe, only 1% of its inhabitants survived the war). The story of Korczak’s struggle is seen through the eyes of Misha and Sophia – two young lovers determined to help Korczak and to survive the increasingly appalling conditions behind the walls.
As the Nazis begin their gradual, deliberate stranglehold on the desperate Jewish population, Korczak vows to keep the children safe. When the deportations to the Treblinka extermination camp begin, and stories about what happens there start to filter back, no one can believe that their worst fears will come true. Misha and Sophia, torn apart by events, struggle to stay alive, surviving on the hope that they’ll find their way back to each other one day.
It’s clear from a long author’s note that this is a work of deep personal meaning for Gifford. The research is meticulous. Misha and Sophia were real people, as were all who populate these pages – a fact that only serves to bring home the horror of their fate. Gifford admits that her first draft of the book was ‘too factual’ and there are moments when the cool delivery of yet another harrowing event dulls its emotional impact, but the prose is spare and not overly sentimental and in some ways more powerful for it. The truth doesn’t need embellishment. I found myself quickly pulled into the story, concerned about the fate of the main characters and frequently sickened by the very real horrors that were inflicted on innocents. A sense of dread pervades these pages. Gifford has pulled off quite a feat – even though we know the history, we, like the characters in the book, can’t quite believe the Nazis will go so far. But there is hope too, and courage and compassion – a reminder that, sometimes, it is in the most devastating circumstances that we can become our best selves.
With powerful themes of loss, hope and what it means to be human, The Good Doctor of Warsaw is a brave, moving and important book with a message we need now as much as ever.
The Good Doctor of Warsaw is published on 1st February 2018.
Find out more at elisabethgifford.com.
Katherine Clements is the author of The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart and is editor of Historia Magazine. Her third novel, The Coffin Path, an eerie and compelling seventeenth-century ghost story set on the dark wilds of the Yorkshire moors, is published on 8th February 2018.