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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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

The Spring of Kasper Meier

by Ben Fergusson

Oh dear.  Yet another book that I really didn’t enjoy.

It was a book group selection and I found it available to download cheaply (which can be suspicious).  I downloaded and read it fairly quickly, with only about a week in hand before the book group meeting – which in the end I missed, though I did provide feedback.

The book is set in Berlin at a specific point in time: the spring of 1946.  The author has evidently gone to some lengths to research the period, and the atmosphere and setting are very evocative and, one must assume, at least to some extent realistic.  Berlin is in ruins; the four occupying powers have numbers of soldiers in the city, and the remaining Germans are in the main women, old people and those injured or incapacitated in some way.  Our ‘hero’, Kasper Meier (the non-German spelling of Kaspar grates already) is a trader on the black market who ran a bar before the Nazi era.  As a gay man, he has something to hide, and as the sole carer of his elderly and inform father, he has something (someone) to protect.  He is a prime candidate for blackmail, and when a young woman approaches him with a request to find a specific English pilot stationed in Berlin, he sets out to do so – but also to find out something more about Eva’s story, which he suspects from the first.

Interspersed with Kasper’s story and his growing relationship with Eva are apparently unconnected incidents involving members of the various occupying forces who appear to be the victims of targeted shootings.  We gradually learn how Kasper’s role fits with these shootings, and in a somewhat surprising ending, we learn that the mysterious Frau Beckmann who has masterminded these shootings is not the person she appears to be, and is running the whole criminal enterprise for quite another reason than the reader (and Kasper) at first suspected.

The dénouement is quite clever, though barely believable.  It does not compensate for the very thin plot that gets us there.  This novel appears to be all about the setting, with the story as an afterthought.  Even the characters are not very interesting or convincing.  Kasper is a gay man with only one eye, who, we learn, had a happy relationship in the past which he hasn’t yet got over.  His partner was arrested and, we may assume, transported and/or executed.  We don’t really find out what makes Kasper tick.  Eva’s character is even less satisfying: she is very young and has had some horrific experiences which have left her ready to take life – or so the reader is led to believe.

Aside from the spelling of Kasper’s name, there were a few other features that seemed to me unrealistic, as well as some basic grammatical mistakes; these never fail to make me wince.  Most of Kasper’s trade is done by means of barter, which seems realistic.  But when he offers money, would he really have used German currency (the non-specific “Mark”)?  The action takes place two years before German currency reform. Surely a foreign soldier would not have accepted anything other than hard currency for his goods.

Sorry – this one got 5/10 from me, and I wonder if I was being a little over-generous.  It’s back to Philip Roth and Marcel Proust for me now.  Plenty more good stuff to read!

 

Exposure

by Helen Dunmore

This was a book group recommendation.  I ordered, read and returned it to the library quite quickly, in order to be ready for the discussion next Thursday.  The two books but Dunmore that I had read previously.  I don’t even recall the first one – I think it had something to do with loss, and I read it not very many years after we lost our son Ben. The second book, which I found more substantial, was The Siege.

I didn’t have high hopes for this novel, either.  I find spy stories difficult.  How are you supposed to keep track of which side anyone is on?  I find I am easily bewildered by plots which involve agents and double-agents and their handlers.

So let me start by saying that this is not a conventional spy thriller. Yes, there is danger (mortal danger, indeed) and some very dark deeds. Yes, there are goodies and baddies.  Luckily for me, it is fairly obvious from early on who the goodies and baddies are, and they don’t switch places. Despite this, there is plenty of tension in the narrative, and some very believable characters.

One character, Giles, is in a hospital bed for nearly all of the time in which the narrative plays out.  We know that he is the real spy, but the author does not give anything away as to how the falsely-accused Simon will get out of the charges against him – if he does.  Simon’s character, his past and present life and that of his wife is very well drawn.  Even Lily’s mother, a German refugee who has retired to Brighton, is a person one can imagine and believe in, despite her relatively minor role in the story.

I am sensitive to anything in fiction which touches on an area of knowledge in which I consider myself to be well-versed if not expert.  Language is one such area, and I had to suspend disbelief when Lily finds she no longer understands German.  Really?  You spent the first eight or nine years of your life in Berlin, with German parents, and move to England with your German mother… I would find it hard enough to believe even that Lily has no accent, let alone that she has forgotten the language completely.

Well… this doesn’t really detract from the story, which is a good one.  Highly recommended – 8 out of 10.

 

The Secret Scripture

by Sebastian Barry

I didn’t know what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book.

The language is poetic in many places, and for me this worked very well and served to further illustrate the characters.  For example, soon after introducing Father Gaunt, we are told: “He carried a highly ecclesiastical umbrella, like something real and austere, that said its prayers at night in the hatstand”.  Or when Roseanne describes her skin as a centenarian as being like the thin transparent layer that covers a razor fish shell that you might find on a beach.  These passages give you an insight into Roseanne’s character and her powers of observation, and this helps the reader to trust her version of the story, even though it is at odds with the ‘official’ version recorded by Fr Gaunt.

I also liked the way Roseanne’s reflections as an old person contrast with the way she describes her life as a girl and young woman.  In most of her narrative, she inhabits her younger self, so that you sometimes forget that she is telling the story some 70 years later.  But then her older character comes out with something like this: “It is always worth itemising happiness, there is always so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can” and you feel that it is the older Roseanne reflecting on her life, and presenting it in the way she wants to.

Roseanne’s life is shaped by the environment she lives in: the civil war in Ireland; the influence of the clergy in the new republic; and finally the official move to close down institutions such as the one in which she has spent most of her adult life, and to right some of the wrongs done to their inmates.  She has no control over these historical events, and she doesn’t even reflect on them much, yet they have been the main influences on her life and that of the people around her.  I felt that this was an interesting treatment of the subject of Irish history. This book gave me a better understanding, in particular of the relationship between church and state in Ireland during the middle years of the twentieth century.

I was less satisfied with the ‘twist in the tail’ and I felt that tying up Roseanne’s story with that of Dr Grene and John Kane was just a bit too tidy and rather implausible.  However, it didn’t detract from the main story as far as I was concerned.

For  our book group, I gave this book a score of 8 out of 10.

A Whispered Name

by William Brodrick

Chosen by our book group.  I not sure why we chose it, or what the alternatives were – I probably missed the meeting where it was selected.  I got this book from the library and read it within ten days – but it was a bit of a slog.

Not sure exactly why I had so much trouble with this book.  I found it incredibly slow-moving at first, and the pace never really picked up, although my reading pace did.  I found myself reading ahead and jumping around in the narrative.  This didn’t make it any easier to follow the story, such as it is.

The action in this novel is quite restrained: a contemporary monk, Anselm, begins an investigation into the First World War experiences of another monk, Herbert Moore, now dead.  Herbert was the brother who first welcomed Anselm into the order.  We learn next to nothing about Anselm; his role is that of an investigator, uncovering the truth.  In this respect this book may be said to resemble a thriller – but its crawling pace is out of keeping with any thriller I have read recently.

The author looks deeply into motivation and legality of actions in times of war, and the lasting effect that wartime decisions and actions have on the actors long after the war is over. Two key experiences appear to shape Herbert’s life: his mercy shooting of a soldier in his unit who appears to be drowning in the mud of Flanders, and his part as one of the officers on a Field General Court Marshal trying an Irish deserter.  The ‘back story’ is mainly that of the deserter, another deserter with whom he apparently changes places, and – to a much more limited extent – of Herbert himself.

There are nuances in the plot.  Herbert has been disciplined himself for a similar offence, and perhaps for this reason the judgment weighs heavily on him.  It is implied that Flanagan was statistically more likely to be sentenced to death because he was Irish.  The soldier with whom Flanagan at one point changes identities has enlisted under an assumed name, and is really under age.

The other officers in the story come across as real people – some of them career soldiers, but most of them men who have just ended up on the battlefield and try to come to terms with the terrible things they are being asked to do.

Women don’t feature much in this novel.  The landscape, however – on the Ypres salient, around the convent of Larkwood and on Flanagan’s home island of Inisdúr – features greatly in the lives of each of the main protagonists.


Writing these words, two weeks after reading the book, I wonder why I found it so hard going.  It is in fact an interesting topic given a sensitive approach.  All the same, I don’t think I will be rushing to read anything else by this author, and I can’t give the book more than 6 out of 10.  It would have earned a 7 if the story could have moved along a bit faster!

Travels with my Aunt

by Graham Greene

My book group selected this book.  Though I wasn’t at the meeting when it was chosen, I felt quite excited about reading (or re-reading) this book.  I believe it is the only Greene novel I have ever read – and yet I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I had enjoyed it.

I set about trying to find a copy.  And then the thought occurred to me that if I had already read out, I might still have a copy.  And luckily I do.

It’s a fairly short novel – and I have noticed a trend within the book group to select whichever book is the shortest out of the three or four presented!  But in the case of this book, it packs quite a punch and makes up in density for what it lacks in volume.  I would say it took me as long to read as a longer, lighter book might have done.

So – why do I like the book so much?  More than anything, it is Greene’s style of writing that appeals.  His prose is very well-formed and yet neither heavy nor stuffy. True, the narrator of this tale, writing in the first person, could be said to be a stuffy sort of person.  Henry Pulling is an early-retired bank manager in his fifties, whose life so far has contained nothing more exciting than selecting a new variety of dahlia for his garden or deciding which of his clients is deserving of a loan.  When he meets ‘Aunt Agatha’ his life changes dramatically.  He undertakes journeys full of adventure and excitement, and pretty soon decides that this life is superior to the “boring” but safe one he has been used to.

The characters are intriguing and well-developed.  Aunt Agatha herself is much more than the ‘little old lady’ her exterior presents.  Her valet/companion/lover from Sierra Leone, Wordsworth, is not the simpleton that his broken English and servile attitude presents, but a devoted and ultimately shattered lover.  The Tooleys – father and daughter – are likeable despite their quirks.  The only major character who remains elusive is Mr Visconti, hard to figure out even when we meet him.  But his function in the novel is as a foil for Aunt Agatha’s pure and blind devotion.

This novel depicts a rite of passage, even though the person undergoing the journey is a mature man.  Learning early on that the woman whose funeral serves as the setting for the novel’s opening is not his real mother, he eventually finds out (and the reader, perhaps, guesses rather sooner) who she is.  Henry learns about life, love (a little) and what matters.

The novel is light-hearted and barely believable, although it deals with serious subjects. Greene is often laugh-out-loud funny, and invariably insightful.  I think the strength of this novel lies in its easy tone which at the same time exposes universal truths.