REVIEW: At the Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino

In brief: Rosa leaves Berlin to stay with her in-laws at the height of World War II and soon gets a job – as one of Hitler’s food tasters.

The good: Intense with insight into a part of history not covered by fiction.

The not-so-good: Lost track occasionally when the narrative jumped between past and present.

Why I chose it: I like historical fiction that covers forgotten events – thanks to Simon & Schuster for the copy.

Year: 2019

Pages: 275

Translator: Leah Janeczko from the Italian

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Setting: Gross-Partsch, Germany

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Food tasters for Hitler? When you think about it, it all makes sense. As World War II continued, Hitler became increasingly paranoid that someone would kill him – on the Allied side or from within his own ranks. So, who were these food tasters? In this novel (originally translated from the Italian), Rosella Postorino explores the life of the food tasters through the eyes of Rosa.

Rosa has come to the German countryside to stay with her in-laws after losing her family in Berlin during the bombings. Gregor is fighting the war and Rosa is, well, bored. She is summonsed to be part of the all-female group that tests the food coming out from Hitler’s kitchen. Three times a day they must eat a variety of foods and if they become ill or worse, they have saved Hitler from a similar fate. At the start, it is nerve wracking but it soon becomes mundane. Rosa’s father was quietly anti-Nazi and her husband Gregor is doing his duty rather than fighting for his country. The women are a motley group, some devoted to Hitler and some ambivalent about the whole process. During their time together, they will learn each other’s secrets while trying to keep their own hidden.

Rosa is a complex character, not particularly likeable nor always relatable. She’s not keen on the Nazis, but sensible enough to keep it quiet to get fed well in turbulent times. I felt a lot of the time she was simply drifting, seeing where things would take her without taking responsibility for her own actions. At times she is more of an observer of the other women and their lives. It’s difficult to understand why she feels this way. Is it because Gregor goes missing early in the novel or because their planned life together was changed so early in their marriage? Rosa’s actions are also complex to interpret. She steals from the kitchens after being bullied to do so, yet doesn’t dob in the perpetrators when caught. She also begins a purely physical relationship with one of the soldiers under the nose of her in-laws, but why? It’s not for increased safety as she is somewhat scared of him and she’s offered very little protection in return. It’s like Rosa wants to throw herself into danger to spice up her life.

Some parts of this novel were very intriguing, such as the initial routine of the food tasting and when it all went bad. As the Nazi regime starts to crumble, the pace picks up and the characters are on edge. Other parts moved much more slowly for me as Rosa watches her soldier watching her, night in, night out. Her friendship with the Baroness also didn’t add a great deal to the narrative for me. Sometimes the narrative moved between past and present from one paragraph to another and I was lost. A heading or a different font would have been useful – although this may be in the final copy as I read an ARC. It could also be due to my poorer understanding of German history in the lead up to World War II.

I liked the insight into the lives of the food tasters and their regular confrontation with potential poisoning. Some of the subplots weren’t as well done for me but I enjoyed the ending as it described a love won and lost.

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