Review From Shelf Awareness

As World War II rages on, an international team of brilliant scientists is developing a top-secret bomb in the lab at Los Alamos. Among them is Dr. Hannah Weiss, a gifted Jewish physicist who fled Berlin to escape Nazi persecution. Major Jack Delaney, an intelligence agent sent to Los Alamos to catch a spy, has set his sights on Hannah: he believes her correspondence with her colleagues back home may contain vital nuclear information. Screenwriter and director Jan Eliasberg unravels Hannah’s complicated story in her compelling debut novel, Hannah’s War.

Eliasberg’s narrative begins with Hannah, chained in an American prison transport, en route from Los Alamos to Fort Leavenworth for interrogation. After setting the scene at Los Alamos and introducing readers to Jack, Hannah and their colleagues, Eliasberg takes readers back to Hannah’s girlhood. Diligent and gifted, she becomes a physicist at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, but is often overlooked by her colleagues since she is female and Jewish. Her work attracts the notice of Stefan Frei, a talented but lazy physicist and the son of the institute’s director. Together, Hannah and Stefan pursue a series of experiments that lead them ever closer to splitting the atom–only to have their work interrupted when Hannah must flee.

By early 1945, Jack Delaney has risen quickly through the ranks of American intelligence and comes to Los Alamos determined to discover who might be passing sensitive scientific information to the Nazis. He harbors suspicions about several European scientists but is particularly drawn to Hannah–though his attraction to her may compromise his investigative skills. Both Hannah and Jack are hiding secrets–some of which have nothing to do with physics or politics–and Eliasberg skillfully traces the steps of their personal and professional dance.

The true strength of Hannah’s War lies not only in its vivid characters and fast-paced narrative–though both of those elements are notable–but goes deeper by forcing its protagonists, and thus readers, to reckon with complex questions of political allegiance, personal loyalty, vocation and love. Hannah’s colleagues, both in Berlin and at Los Alamos, recognize the undeniable power of the knowledge they are pursuing, and its potential to be used for good or for ill. Both Jack and Hannah walk the tightrope of staying true to oneself while concealing vital parts of one’s identity in order to survive. And many of the characters, even minor ones, wonder whether love and decency become unaffordable luxuries in wartime.  

Inspired by true events, with a tightly drawn plot and layered characters, Hannah’s War is a stunning story of a brilliant woman fighting her own war on several fronts. —Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Shelf Talker: Screenwriter Jan Eliasberg’s gripping debut novel follows Hannah Weiss, an Austrian-Jewish physicist working on the atomic bomb.