I think authors write about the Holocaust and readers keep reading about the Holocaust because there is no coming to terms with a crime so massive, so damaging. Every novel is a fresh perspective on an event that will always shape humanity. That said, Julia Ain-Krupa’s The Upright Heart is one of the most unusual perspectives I’ve yet seen in Holocaust fiction. Instead of replicating history, this novel is a ghost story, with the dead place as much or more of a role than the living.
Even though The Upright Heart is a short novel, it is a meandering story. It opens in small down in Poland just after the end of World War II with a man who is late for work. Wiktor is running to his post when he is hit and killed by a train. Only then do we learn that Wiktor is our entré into a tangled story of unfinished business. Wiktor hops trains as a ghostly hobo until he comes across Wolf, who left their town for America just before the war with his new wife. Wolf was not in love with that wife. Even years later, he still pines for his lost love, non-Jewish Olga, who died in the Holocaust.
Over the course of The Upright Heart, Wolf is haunted, psychologically and literally, by Olga, their unborn child, and the ghosts of others who died during the war. Though Wiktor is our initial guide, he mostly disappears over the course of the book as other characters step forward to tell their stories. There isn’t an overarching plot, as such. Rather, this book is a puzzle for readers to work out. As the novel unfolds, we slowly learn how the characters are connected to each other and what they meant to each other when they were all alive. The Upright Heart keeps moving on to new characters and I had to roll with the narrative, even though I wasn’t sure quite who I was supposed to be paying attention to.
Readers who prefer a more straightforward read may be frustrated by The Upright Heart. To be honest, I am one of those readers. This book never quite gelled for me and there were too much writerly fireworks for me to fully understand the story and its characters. But I do appreciate the chance that Ain-Krupa took in creating a ghost story about the Holocaust. At the beginning of the novel, when Wiktor runs across a squad of the ghosts of Wehrmacht soldiers, I was powerfully struck with the image that all of eastern Europe must be covered with the ghosts of World War II dead. It’s a wonder that the living can function when they must constantly run into the chill of past crimes.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.