Born Survivors

by Wendy Holden

It’s cheating slightly to review this book when I haven’t quite finished reading it.  But I have been dipping into it, reading chapters back and forth for a few weeks now.  I can’t seem to make myself read this book from beginning to end, and perhaps I will take it back to the library without reading all of it.

Why doesn’t the book hold my attention?  It is, after all, a harrowing true story, told in a way that makes it accessible even to a reader who may be Holocaust-weary.  Am I allowed even to suggest such a thing?  My own mother-in-law was a refugee from Nazi Austria.  Her fate may easily have been that of the people in this story, and this was indeed the fate of some her close relatives – aunts, cousins.

The author tells the stories of three Jewish women from Eastern Europe – Priska, Rachel and Anka – each of whom gave birth within the last weeks of the Second World War, either in or on their way to a concentration camp.  Miraculously, all three women and their babies survived, and the personal stories that the author has pieced together have been largely transmitted via these babies, now in their seventies.  None of the women was aware of the existence of the other two, even though they followed a common itinerary from Auschwitz II – Birkenau, to Freiberg and finally Mauthausen, before the last of these camps was liberated by American troops.

Perhaps because the women themselves are not telling their own stories, I found it harder to ‘get inside’ their experience.  But really, perhaps it is just hard when the brutality and deprivation are such as most of us, thankfully, will never experience ourselves.

Prism is from present-day Slovakia, Rachel from Poland and Anka from what is now the Czech Republic.  The book starts with a chapter devoted to each, telling of their early life, family, marriage, the ongoing and escalating persecution of these women, their families and thousands of others, and their eventual deportation from the ghettos of Lodz and Warsaw to Auschwitz.  There follows a chapter each on the different detention centres, as well as their last transport from Freiburg to Mauthausen.  At the end of the book we learn of what happened to each of these women after their liberation, as they returned (or not) to their home towns, searched for their husbands and family members, and rebuilt their lives in exile.

The personal stories are moving, and the conditions these women faced are vividly imagined and told.  The author has evidently done her research very well.  Some of the phrases and incidents attributed to the women do smack of “family lore” but I suppose this is inevitable – and it makes them and their families somehow more human.  I felt that the author was inclined to make sweeping and not always accurate assessments – unnecessary in my view, when the facts speak for themselves.  For example:

p.305 “They are … inevitably defined to be the last-ever survivors of the Holocaust” – no, they may be the youngest but not necessarily the last to survive.

p.322 “Britain, France and Canada took in thousands …”  Palestine and the US are also mentioned, but Polish Jews were “unwelcome anywhere else in the world”.  I’m not sure about this – what about Australia?  Something I need to research some more, perhaps.

This is not a book I would have chosen to read, and as such, it was a good book group choice.  Still not sure whether I will bring myself to finish reading it.

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No Second Chance

by Harlan Coben

A gripping story about a double murder (more precisely, one murder and one attempted murder) and the victim’s hunt for his missing child.

Coben manages skilfully to weave a complex, twisting plot with a large cast of characters. It is clear form early on who the really bad guys are, but the reader is never quite sure about some of the others. Is the narrator – reconstructive surgeon Marc Seidmann – himself part of the plot, as the police believe, or is he, as he first appears, a victim? What is the role of his wealthy and distant father-in-law, Edgar?

Like all good thrillers, this one has a twist in the tail. I don’t think this was actually necessary. Yes, it ties up one or two more loose ends, which are more observant reader might have picked up on (though I didn’t). But by this time the story has satisfactorily arrived at a conclusion.

I loved the way Verne, a gun-loving, RFA-supporting, mullet-wearing redneck turns out to have a pure and honest soul, giving our Marc valuable advice and, in the end, saving his neck. He is of course a stereotype, but one whom Coben runs around by making him also a human being.

Pure

by Andrew Miller

I was put onto this book by Karen at Bookertalk.  I downloaded it to my Kindle and it has languished there for a few months.  When Bookertalk recently reviewed another of Miller’s books, I decided to get down to reading this one.  My ‘review’ is, as usual, cursory and designed mainly to remind me what I’ve read.  If you happen to read this and want a more expansive and polished review, please follow the link to Karen’s site.

The setting – Paris immediately before the Revolution – is convincing right down to the smallest details of how people dress, the rooms they live in, their daily hygiene habits, the tools they use.  But the novel is not full of description.  There is a compelling story, and with the backdrop of the revolutionaries meeting in secret and painting slogans on walls, the reader does expect things to ‘blow up’ at any minute.  They do not, however, and the main character, the engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is able to complete his task of emptying the overfilled and stinking cemetery of Les Innocents.  Only at the very end of the book, when he arrives at Versailles palace to present his final report, does he perceive that things are not as they were.

Other characters are brought vividly to life: Barrette’s former friend Lecoeur who has turned to the bottle; Armand the revolutionary organist; Héloïse Godard whom Baratte eventually takes as his mistress; even the side characters who support the disagreeable work of Baratte and his team of miners in various ways.  Jean-Baptiste himself grows from the provincial innocent who first arrives in Paris from Normandy to take up his commission, to someone who can assert himself with tradespeople, landlord and ministers as well as managing a large team of people.

This was a hugely enjoyable read, and I will come back to this author.

Ginger you’re barmy

by David Lodge

This was a book group choice, chosen at one of the meetings I missed.  Though I have enjoyed reading David Lodge’s work in the past, the title and subject matter of this book – National Service in the 1950s – made my heart sink.  Nevertheless I ordered a copy, and read the book over a few days.

I enjoyed the book more than I expected to.  It is clearly autobiographical, and the narrator and main protagonist – Jon – hated National Service and had very little time for the army.  it seemed, after the first couple of chapters, that this would be all there was to the story.  However, a plot does emerge.  The author creates a certain amount of suspense by starting each chapter of the main story with a side story taking place at the end of Jon’s two years in the army.  We learn that he has a girlfriend, Pauline, who was previously the girlfriend of Jon’s best friend Mike.

In an Afterword, Lodge tells us that Jon and Mike are both aspects of himself.  I suspect that he is actually much more like Jon: intellectual, practical, conformist.  The irascible and rebellious Mike ends up in trouble, and Jon is unable (or unwilling) to help him.

Things I liked about this book:

  • it gives an unstintingly bleak view of army life as experienced by these young men
  • Jon’s moral dilemmas are given some space
  • the bullying of one unfortunate character, Percy Higgins, is realistic, painful to read and ultimately, believably, tragic
  • the physical descriptions of early 1960s decor, train travel, food ring true (the book was after all written in 1962)

Things I didn’t like:

  • Pauline is given little credit for making her own decisions, though we know she lives an independent life.  The shotgun marriage at the end – which I didn’t expect – is perhaps understandable in the context of the times – but one wonders whether Pauline would have made a different choice if allowed to
  • the author’s misogyny is even more clearly seen in his description of the few other females characters
  • Jon (and, one suspects, Lodge) is disdainful of any of his colleagues who tolerate or even enjoy army life

Of the women typists at the army camp:

Through the window on my right I saw two pretty shorthand typists making their mid-morning tea.  Women look maddeningly desirable in an Army camp. Perhaps that is why they choose to work in such places: it must be exhilarating to know that you are being mentally raped a hundred times a day.

OK, this is a young man expressing what he – and probably others – may have felt at the time.  But it would be inexcusable to write something like this today.  it reveals an aspect of male psychology that, one hopes, even such a young man might challenge in our present age.

I’ve talked about this book to several people who have themselves – or their partners have – experienced National Service.  So I am about to lend it out to my friend Pat, who has lent me many books at one time or another.

Score: 6/10

Transcription

by Kate Atkinson

I had medium hopes for this book. Could it possibly be as good as Atkinson’s last two novels: Life after Life and A God in Ruins? I expected that it would not be – and I was right. That said, this novel kept me reading, and I finished it within three days (nights!).

As with the previous two novels, this one is set mainly in the Second World War. And as with those stories, war is not only the backdrop but a crucial part the experience of the main character, Juliet Armstrong.

But unlike the other novels, this is a spy story with the kind of convoluted plot you expect to find in such books. You are never quite sure whose side any of the characters is on. There are innocent victims, but most of the characters – including Juliet herself – are not what they seem.

Atkinson puts us into Juliet’s head to such an extent that we can’t see how she herself is – or might be – being manipulated. By shifting between 1940 and 1950 in the narrative, we gradually observe the way that Juliet’s post-war career with the BBC keeps her tied to her past connections. But it is not until the end of the novel that the extent of those ties becomes apparent. The final scene, in 1981, mirrors the opening scene. But now that we know so much more about Juliet, we are bound to be suspicious about the road ‘accident’ that she meets with on her way home from a concert.

I’m not very good with spy stories.  You are, of course, not supposed to know what side the various characters are on.  This is certainly the case with this book.  It keeps you guessing.  Now that I have finished it, I think I will probably re-read it and look for the clues as to who is manipulating whom and what side they are on!

Musing about Proust

I feel the need to explain the gaps in my book reviews recently.  I have spent the last two or three weeks catching up on my reading for the ‘Proust book group’ that consists of myself and three other Oxenton residents.  We realised, around the end of 2017, that all three of us were reading Proust for the first time.  The other two – Pauline and Ann – had both received the complete set of seven novels in French as a gift from their respective husbands.  In my case, I had a French edition on Kindle but had decided to read the first two and a half books in English.  (For my rationale in doing this, see this post on another blog of mine).

We have been meeting every three months or so, and giving ourselves a chapter – which in Proust is about half a book – to read before each meeting.  I have lagged behind on the past two meetings.  On one occasion it was because my French edition seemed to have different chapter divisions, so I just hadn’t read far enough!  I remedied this by buying another Kindle edition, still without much formatting and with no notes, but more standard in terms of the text.  Since starting Du Côté des Guermantes (book 3) I have also purchased the new translation of this book in English.  The Kindle editions, even of these recently-published translations, are very good value.  The translation is excellent, and there are useful footnotes on cultural and historical points.  Christopher Pendergast is the series editor but each book has a different translator.  I may well invest in the translations of the other books in this edition, but for now I am taking it one book at a time.  Seriously – am I ever going to re-read this novel, in French or English?

So now to the book itself.  To me, it defies description.  Most people who persevere with it seem to be smitten, as I was from the first book.  It is long, yes.  The sentences are long and the grammar sometimes convoluted, and although the language is not difficult, you sometimes have to re-read a sentence to make sense of it.  The characters are very cleverly and compellingly written, and I am beginning to see a plot developing.  I have heard that plot is very important in this book, and that it is satisfyingly unravelled at the end.  For now, just keeping up with the characters is a challenge, and I was excited to find a website that illuminates and cross-references them, indexing them throughout the work.

There is a part of me that would love to push on through the remaining four-and-a-half books uninterrupted by other reading.  But I don’t think I can bear to leave my pile of to-read books, and all the other reading that might come my way, while I do this.  So it is going to be a case of ‘splurging’ on Proust now and again.  The book group has the beneficial effect of making me do this, and also encouraging me to read it in French.  I do really hope I will finish the novel in the next few years.

Days without End

by Sebastian Barry

What an amazing book!

Picked up in the library a couple of months ago (yes, months) and then put aside while I read other things.  I have renewed this twice already, so decided to use the last two days of my third loan period to actually read it.  Very pleased I did so.

The book is written in an engaging style in the first-person narrative of Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant to America in the potato famine.  We first meet Thomas when he hooks up with another young man, John Cole, at the age of about fourteen.  The two remain together, serving in the army in the Indian wars and then later fighting for the Union in the Civil War.  Their attempts at making a home life together after the war are beset by further problems, as McNulty’s past catches up with him.  All the while, he takes pleasure in the the present he finds himself in, revelling in nature, companionship and love.

The beauty and grandeur of the American landscape is brought very vividly to life in McNulty’s first-hand account.  Much of his life is taken up with travelling, both while in the army and afterwards.  The reader gets a sense of the hardships faced by the white settlers as well as the Indians and southern blacks.  The narrator sees and treats them all as people – fellow sufferers in life’s trials.

Though there is plenty of killing, this is essentially a moral book.  We never see Thomas as anything other than a good person, motivated by honour and justice.  He may not be able to express it that way, but his language is eloquent despite his limited education.

A beautiful book.