I didn’t start this book with any particular relish. It was a holocaust book after all, and who looks forward, really, to reading a holocaust book? Be prepared for gut wrenching.Yes it is heartbreaking ultimately, but mostly impressive storytelling. Storytelling inspired by real events of course. It’s difficult to write about the book without spoilers, such is the revelation at the end coming after an inadvertent betrayal, so I’ll just stick to the bare essentials.
The narrator is a governess, Marta. She is in the employ of the Bauer’s: Pavel, the hard-working industrialist; his cool and beautiful wife Anneliese. Marta is in charge of their young son Pepik. Her relationship with Pepik is like a mother to son. Certainly she loves him as her own, and Pepik runs to Marta first, before his mother. The Bauer’s are Jewish, though secular, not really practicing their religion. Nevertheless, it’s 1938 in Czechoslovakia and the times are becoming perilous for Europe, especially for Jews. So that they are first forced to leave their home and travel to Prague. There is no escaping for those who hesitated, in hopes that things would not get as far as they eventually did, They can’t leave the country, the borders are closed. But they are able to get their son finally our via Kindertransport.
Structurally, the book is just about right, with short letters before Chapters to friends, family, loved ones- ending with (for example): (FILE UNDER: Stein, Alzbeta. Died Auschwitz, 1943). She writes astutely about the general populace (non-jewish) who almost against their will and through some deep-seated inadequacy, succumb to the hatred of Nazism.
Here’s my one quibble: Author Pick is a poet and she has talked about the distinction and different methods of writing in each genre. I maintain though, that here there is crossover, with not always happy results. When she sticks to the compelling story, she does just fine. But when she waxes poetic she missteps. Many of these missteps would not be out-of-place in a poem. Some of them in the context of the story just seem to not mean anything – and I hate that in a writer.
She lay on her back with her breast ripped open while the wolves bloodied their snouts in her grieving
or when a line that would be thoughtful and “lyrical” in a poem is just plain what-the-fuck-does-that-mean? in context.
Spring arrived like a peddler selling flowers
There are several train metaphors and interesting meditations on memory(see below), but WTF?
The train of memory sleeps on its tracks.
But also, there are insights parcelled throughout the tale:
The can come off as selfish, the survivors and their children. As closed and cramped, dark knots of grievance. That too is Hitler’s legacy: the poison never fully flushed out.
A train meant escape. The possibility of leaving. That forlorn sound that the whistle unspooled, as it drifted out across the dark countryside, seemed so lonesome, and yet so right. It was the exact sound of the emptiness in the centre of her being, like waking up and crying out in the middle of the night and hearing another sadness call back.
and on betrayal,
This is one of the things the social sciences teach, one of the few things about which psychology is abundantly clear: we will re-inflict our own wounds on those in our care.
The watch had stopped, of course. I had it repaired. Time took up its post again, resumed the heavy lifting. Memory is a stone that is difficult to budge. Especially as it applies to family.
Besides the plot revelations that bring it all together, there is an interesting turn of narration that becomes evident in the last few chapters. What started out (I thought) as the narration of a story by Marta, turns out to be one of the characters writing the “memoir” of that family and those times and using the eyes of Marta initially to pull the reader in. Coming even more clean, that character admits she’s not necessarily a reliable narrator, since there is hard evidence for some of what she writes and some of it is educated guesses and some of it is plain choices made that are not necessarily warranted by the historical record. And my favorite flourish: when she reports on the death of two lovers she writes:
What did you expect? A happy ending?