The Helsingor Sewing Club
1943: In the midst of the German occupation during World War Two, Inger Bredhal joins the underground resistance and risks her life to save members of Denmark’s Jewish community and help them escape to Sweden.
2018: Inger’s granddaughter, Cecilie Lund, is mourning her death when a mysterious discovery while cleaning out Inger’s flat leads past and present to intersect. As long-held secrets finally see the light of day, Cecilie learns the story of her grandmother’s courage and bravery.
The Helsingor Sewing Club was inspired by the Danish resistance who saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish refugees by hiding them in Palin sight and then transporting them across to Sweden. The title of the novel is the code name for the resistance group based in Helsingor (Elsinore) where our story is set, however the significance of the name is not explained until much later in the novel which is strange and we never witness the code name being used.
The idea behind the story is a fascinating one and is set towards the end of the war when hostilities between the Danish and Germans were increasing. When Inger arrives in Helsingor to work with a bookbinder, she slowly becomes aware her new boss is using his business as a cover for the resistance and she is determined to do her part. Since Inger is so young, the other members are reluctant to involve her but Inger’s quick thinking and her visible presence around town make her the ideal messenger. However, the stakes are raised when word is leaked that the Germans intend to round up the Jews in Copenhagen and hundreds of refugees begin to pour into Helsingor. The town residents have become adept at hiding Jews during the Occupation but the Germans have grown increasingly suspicious and are watching them closely.
The story has a dual timeline with Inger’s story in 1943 being told from the diary her granddaughter, Cecilie, discovers in 2018, however this makes no sense as Inger isn’t the sole narrator of the 1943 timeline. After chapters of only Inger’s point of view, the narrative is suddenly taken over by Gudrun, Inger’s cousin, and Gudrun’s best friend, Bodil, presumably to fill gaps in the story as Inger can’t be everywhere all the time. The switch in narration is jarring since no one seems to be telling anyone else what is going on and it becomes incredibly annoying after a while. As time goes on, the three women seem to be more preoccupied with their love lives as Gudrun discovers she is pregnant and Bodil falls in love with a German soldier – storylines that both end in tragedy but go ultimately nowhere.
Inger also finds herself torn between two very different men but it all gets really tedious and detracts from what is supposed to be the real focus of the story. The Danish resistance managed to get more than 8,000 Jews to safety and Gyland introduces some of the real life resisters into her novel but they all seem more concerned with Inger’s safety than the people they are supposed to be helping. The fate of these men and women are only commented on in passing at the end of the novel so you are none the wiser as to whether they survived or not. The same could be said for Inger’s family who were more or less forgotten about.
The 2018 part of the novel is barely any better as Cecilie, reeling from the death of her grandmother, starts to clear away Inger’s belongings and finds a bag of jewellery with a note saying they belong to David Nathan. Luckily Cecilie also finds some letters her grandmother wrote to David so she can contact him. David, now in his nineties, arrives in Denmark with his great-grandson, Rafi, and is able to fill in the parts of the story not covered in the diary. Cecilie also falls in love with Rafi remarkably quickly despite her vow to avoid romantic entanglements but this is brushed aside as Cecilie decides to embrace life inspired by her grandmother’s story.
The premise about the underground resistance in Denmark is what drew me to this novel but I just wish it had been better executed and the author hadn’t tried to juggle too many things. The kindle version also has a lot of spelling mistakes and missing words.