YA Review: When The World Was Ours

Title: When The World Was Ours
Author: Liz Kessler
Edition: Kindle
Rating: 3/5

I’m not sure how to review this book, which follows three friends during the Second World War. Leo, Max, and Elsa live in Vienna, and when the book opens in 1936 they have no idea how the next few years will change their lives and their relationships. Leo and Elsa come from Jewish families, while Max’s father is a high-ranking Nazi officer. The book guides the reader through the slow process of dehumanisation of the Jewish characters, alongside an ordinary boy’s journey into fascism. There’s nothing new here if you’ve seen ‘Schindler’s List’ and read around the subject, and I was disappointed that I didn’t feel more connected to these characters as they grew up, and grew apart.

The protagonists are nine years old at the beginning of the novel, and Leo and Elsa’s first-person narration understandably feels more like a mid-grade story than a YA novel. I hoped that their voices would change and develop as the story moved through the next nine years, but the language remained at the mid-grade level even while describing the horrors of the Holocaust. It is an odd juxtaposition, reading graphic scenes about concentration camps and the Hitler Youth, spelled out with such simple words. It might help some readers to identify with the characters, and keep them connected to the three happy children from the first chapter, but I found it alienating and lacking in emotional impact. Leo’s story is based on a real-life event, which I found genuinely moving when the author explained this at the start of the book. However, when this was translated into a fictional setting, I couldn’t connect with the characters at all.

It is possible that this approach will work well for a YA audience coming to the subject for the first time. The characters feel young throughout the story, even when terrible things are happening, which gives them an innocence and a connection to younger readers that I may have missed. The book doesn’t shy away from showing the inhumanity of the Nazi regime – there is a content warning at the start – and maybe this is the right way to tell these stories. Knowing the subject of the book, I wanted to be moved. I wanted to feel something for the characters, and understand how it felt to have their lives transformed over such a short time. I was disappointed, but I can see that for a younger audience this could be a very powerful read.

When The World Was Ours will be published on January 21st. Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read When The World Was Ours? What did you think of the story? Did you find yourself connecting with the characters? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.

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