My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s been several years since I last picked up a novel about the horrors of WWII, but this particular plot drew me back to the genre. Magda Ritter, though not a Nazi sympathizer, needs a job, and following a rigorous vetting process, is chosen to “go into service” for Hitler. Expecting to be a house servant, she is appalled and terrified when selected to be one of the crew of fifteen women who have the great honor of “testing” Hitler’s food for poison before each of his meals. From that moment, Magda is in a state of perpetual anxiety, frightened that each bite might bring about her death. Residing at the Berghof, the Fuhrer’s eastern headquarters, means protection from the dangers of war and plenty of good food. It also means constant surveillance by the SS, and perpetual worry over whom among the staff can be trusted. Everyone harbors secrets, any of which might prove to be deadly.
What this novel does exceedingly well is portray the terrible uncertainties that pervade “ordinary” life in fearful and extraordinary circumstances. As Magda goes about her work, she gradually learns about the unthinkable atrocities inflicted by the Nazis on the populace, and as she comes face to face herself with some of them, it becomes possible for the reader to experience through her the horrific stresses that descend upon those who are powerless to foresee, control, or even avoid them. It is this position of utter helplessness under constant menace, a circumstance that most of us rarely, or perhaps never, have to experience, that provides a glimpse into the lives of countless German citizens trying to survive during the final year of the Nazi regime.
The general public is always presented by the media with a sanitized version of war. The Taster presents slivers of the truth, based upon the memoirs of one of Hitler’s tasters.