Eve Haas’s interesting family memoir starts when her father shows her a notebook which he has been given by his mother, Eve’s grandmother. The notebook is alleged to have come from Eve’s great-grandmother and to have been given to her by her own mother who originally received it from Prince August of Prussia. Eve didn’t see the notebook again until both her parents had died at which time she attempted to find out the truth of this claim. She records that search in The Secrets of the Notebook which is both a memoir and an adventure story.
Prince August was very famous in his day and was important in the Napoleonic Wars. He had a series of morganatic marriages (ones where any children did not inherit titles or have any right to reign). Eve’s family believed that their ancestor had been the final of these marriages but there was very little evidence of this and none of any child – in fact, the family history showed that they were descended from a Jewish family.
Eve and her family fled the Nazis before the war as her father was a prominent Jewish architect. They lived in London during the war but Eve’s beloved grandmother lived in Prague and wasn’t well enough to flee. Eventually contact with her is lost and so too is any information that she can tell Eve to assist in her quest. In fact, the family is adamant that there should be no research and so Eve only starts to explore the past when everyone who could give her more information is dead.
The book follows Eve’s research and shows how the story of her family is slowly revealed to her. It becomes an obsession for Eve and she and her husband travel around the world looking in archives and piecing together information. The research is mostly done during the Cold War and Eve has to get permission to enter East Germany to access archives. This is not without risk as the British authorities cannot help her if anything happens and the East German authorities might consider that as she was originally German that they have jurisdiction over what she does and if she ever leaves. There are certainly some sticky moments and it is difficult for her to find the information but eventually she discovers a story which resolves the seeming paradox about the identity and race of her ancestors in a way that makes sense.
The book is well written and kept me reading. I found the revelations to be fascinating and they reminded me of some of the things I had read about Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife and what they had to endure at the Austro-Hungarian court. The author is not an historian and she feels very connected to the people who she is researching so she does, on occasion, romanticise the story and attribute feelings and motives to people that she can’t necessarily prove. I don’t think that this gets in the way of her conclusions but there were times when I wanted to ask her how she knew that something had been done out of love rather than out of pragmatic necessity.
Towards the end of the book the author also tries to find out what happened to her beloved grandmother in Prague. As it was WW2 and her family is Jewish you realise quite early on what her fate will have been but there are elements of the history which Eve has uncovered which make this particularly sad.
I love a good memoir and especially one with hidden family secrets and I enjoyed this one so much I read it all in one evening.