The greatest crimes in human history are the focus of The History Of History, Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ ambitious debut novel. Her protagonist, a young American expatriate named Margaret Taub, begins the novel by awakening from months of amnesia near Berlin. The amnesia is literal, but it’s also an obvious metaphor for a perception that Germany has been willing to forget its complicity in the Holocaust. In the process of trying to uncover her memories, Margaret digs into Berlin’s Nazi past while working as a World War II tour guide. How do you deal with the guilt of history?
The first half of the novel explores this concept, focusing on Magda Goebbels, the propaganda minister’s wife who committed suicide with her husband, poisoning her six children as well. Margaret becomes obsessed with Magda, chases her story, and looks for threads of redemption and atonement in her infanticide. The intensity of the moral and ethical issues in The History Of History combine with Margaret’s mental instability to create an exhausting—though not entirely unpleasant—cascade of revelations regarding the crimes of the past.
Hattemer-Higgins isn’t content to only focus on guilt for National Socialism: She also brings in a more conventional tale of mid-20s ennui. Margaret’s amnesia may or may not be a metaphor for the way history elides many of the most difficult aspects of the Holocaust, but it’s definitely related to events in her personal life. The author’s ambition extends to her prose; the writing is complex and indirect when Margaret is confused, and entirely clear when Margaret feels certain.
As the novel progresses, the dizzying, near-magical realism of the earlier scenes are supplanted by a more conventional relationship drama. Hattemer-Higgins unflinchingly describes Margaret’s foolish affairs, but switching to relationship drama after the intense, compelling ethical dilemmas is something of a disappointment. The two major threads come together in a too-neat resolution, but the novel doesn’t fully recover from the loss of the first half’s breathless momentum. With so much ambition, it’s not a surprise that The History Of History is a bit of a mess. But that audacity is what makes it exciting.