Holocaust story stark contrast to usual genre

Two Brothers<br><b>Ben Elton</b><br><i>BantamI've never felt the urge to take home a Ben Elton book from the local library, so before tackling Two Brothers I felt obliged to read one.

It - Meltdown - fell into the modern novel/entertainment category, whereas Two Brothers is far from being modern or even entertaining. That's because it follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a German Jewish family from 1920 to 1945 as they're caught up in Nazi policies designed to ensure their extinction.

Told in flashbacks, it begins in Berlin with the birth of twin boys to Frieda and Wolfgang Stengel, one of whom dies. The heartbroken parents quickly learn that in an adjoining room, a solo mother has died after giving birth to a son.

Would Frieda and Wolfgang like to adopt, as the mother's parents want nothing to do with him?Although a fairytale plot device, it allows Elton to weave some interesting themes into the overriding one: survival of the Stengels and their friends in the face of ever-increasing harassment of Jewish families by Hitler's thugs. Between trivial incidents that become more menacing as time goes on, the Stengels go about their business of healing the sick - Frieda is a doctor, and entertaining patrons in nightclubs, Wolfgang is a jazz musician.

Obviously, the differing personalities of Paulus and Otto, as the boys are named, provides the axis around which Elton develops his story, as is the fact that Otto is not Jewish by birth. But filial matters aside, the household also contains a housekeeper who has a daughter the same age as the boys, and Wolfgang teaches music to the young daughter of a wealthy department store owner, who also becomes involved with the family.

This foursome and its developing love interests sits uncomfortably with the mayhem surrounding the family. That's the problem with Two Brothers. No matter how interesting the boys and their relationships, how sympathetic their characters, they remain background to the politics: Nazi thugs breaking down doors, beating up men and women whose only crime is their religion, children being dragged from their parents' arms and loaded on to trucks for transportation to extermination camps.

Switching from the emotional trauma involved in reading such material to teenage joshing and sexual discovery is a step too far. While some readers may feel enough is enough as far as Holocaust stories are concerned, Elton's tale has enough fresh angles to make most of its 518 pages worth turning over.

As with most similar tales, it's wanting to know who survives that keeps the interest high, not the relentless harassment of people who just happen to have a different religion from the majority of Germans. Why Elton felt the need to write such a departure from his usual oeuvre is explained in its biographical reflections.