The 2018 Costa book of the year

It was announced yesterday that Bart von Es’s biography The Cut Out Girl had been named the 2018 Costa book of the year. Detailing the youth of Lien de Jong, a Dutch Jewish girl who went into hiding with Van Es’s family during the Second World War, the book was deemed “extraordinary” by the panel of judges. Now 85 years old, De Jong was in the audience when Van Es received the prize Tuesday. Costa Book Awards, previously the Whitbread Literary Awards, hands out prizes in the categories novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children’s book, one of which is also named the Book of the year. With his win, Van Es joins the ranks of writers such as Claire Tomalin and Helen McDonald, previous winners in the category of biography.

The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found tells the incredible story of how Lien de Jong’s parents handed her over to members of the Dutch resistance in August 1942, hoping this would save their eight year old daughter’s life. Almost all of the little girl’s close relations were to die in the Holocaust, including both her parents. During the war, De Jong lived a life of false identities and posed as someone else’s child in nine different families.

Van Es has claimed that he wanted to create a nuanced portrayal of the members of the Dutch resistance, and that he was surprised by the degree to which the authorities had helped with the rounding up and deportation of Dutch Jews. Others reported on Jewish families for financial gain, or shifted their allegiance when it became clear that the Allies would win the war. However, his book also provides examples of extreme bravery and what Van Es calls a “transcendent sense of moral purpose.” There were women who registered Jewish babies as their own children born out of illegitimate relations with German soldiers, painfully aware of how “fraternising with the enemy” would exclude them from their own community.

Lien de Jong readily admitted that she did not care either way when the war finally ended – she was left without any sense of identity and with no family to return to. She moved back with Van Es’s grandparents, the first family to take her on, but they later fell out. She married a classmate of Anne Frank, but as Europe was rebuilt around her, Lien struggled to rebuild a sense of self. In this way, The Cut Out Girl is not a traditional narrative of adversity and subsequent redemption; it is much more realistic in its portrayal of how difficult it was, and still can be, for survivors to create a new life for themselves. Van Es, who was born in the Netherlands, but lived in Norway, Indonesia and Dubai before his parents settled in the UK in 1986, told the BBC that delving into his family history had been intense, and that during his research, “the ghosts of the old Europe seemed very present.”

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August 2022
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