Will, by Jeroen Olyslaegers

Jeroen Olyslaeger’s Will presents a complicated portrait of a man who was caught between the Belgian Resistance and pro-fascist Belgians during World War II. His refusal to take sides meant that everyone thought he was on their team. In the long shadow of the war, everyone looks at Wilfred Wils askance. When people know you won’t take a stand, they won’t stand with you. Wilfred tells his story to his great-grandson (with us watching over his shoulder) and, while he never justifies his actions, he is brutally honest for perhaps the first time in his long life.

Wilfred, when we meet him, is a poet of very little renown. Back then, he was a policeman. His very average grades in school kept him out of university and had zero prospects. His French tutor, Meanbeard, managed to wrangle Wilfred a job with the Antwerp police (patrol as he’s definitely not detective material). After the Germans invade Belgium, Wilfred learns why his tutor got him a job. Meanbeard thinks that Wilfred shares his sympathies for the Nazis. It’s a mistake that a lot of other people will make. You see, the only person Wilfred really cares about is himself. He has no deep principles he’s willing to die for. I’m not even sure he would put his neck out all that far for the people he calls his best friends. Because of this, Will is one of the strangest World War II books I’ve ever read. Most stories in the genre are all about heroes and villains. There are villains in Will, but I’m hard-pressed to identify any heroes.

Belgian tank on fire during the Battle of Antwerp, May 19, 1940 (Image via Wikicommons)

So, as elderly Wilfred wanders the streets of Antwerp and the apartment he shares with his equally elderly wife, we learn all of his secrets. We see Wilfred accompany Gestapo agents and other Belgian police as the Gestapo rounds up the city’s Jewish citizens. We see Wilfred try to drink his pints while members of the Flemish Legion trash anti-Nazi bars. We also see Wilfred attempt to stay out of everyone’s business as the stake rise around him. Meanbeard and the pro-fascists want Wilfred to spy on his friends in the resistance. His friends in the resistance want Wilfred to spy on the Nazis and the pro-fascists. It’s an impossible position.

Usually, I would be all over the ethical dilemmas of a book like this. Instead, I was more struck by the psychological aspects of Will. I was surprised by all the efforts to try and get Wilfred to turn spy. It was as though none of these people really knew Wilfred. Wilfred appears to have kept his own feelings and thoughts too close to the vest that all anyone else would see was a reflection of their own. Because he never directly contradicts anyone, Wilfred can get away with being cynical about everything and no one really takes him seriously. I was also fascinated by the hints in the latter parts of the book that, even though he believes that he’s finally coming clean about everything, Wilfred might not be remembering events clearly.

Will is not an easy book to read. I had to take some ABBA breaks when things got too heavy for me. But in retrospect, I’m glad I took a chance on Wilfred’s story. Because Olyslaeger’s protagonist is so deeply in the grey between black and white, Will present an opportunity to think more carefully about all of the millions of people who got caught between the Allies and the Axis while they were trying to figure out who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do in their lives. The only quibble I have about this book is the occasionally clunky word choice by the translator, David Colmer. Colmer is best when he doesn’t try to do colloquial.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Keep Saying Their Names, by Simon Stranger

Trigger warning for torture and rape.

In a narrative that strongly reminded me of HhHH, by Laurent Binet, author and narrator Simon Stranger dives into the history of his Jewish Norwegian family and into the story of traitor Henry Oliver Rinnan. Stranger dramatizes conversations and scenes that are based on actual history. The title of the book, Keep Saying Their Names, comes from an old Jewish saying that the dead are only truly gone from us when we forget them. By recounting the stories of the dead, we ensure that they live on in some fashion. But what does it mean when saying the names of long-gone family members also means saying the name of the person who killed them?

Stranger frames his historical narrative as an alphabet. Each letter provides a quick entry point to themes, historical events, dialogues, etc. The impressionistic way that Stranger tells his stories is part of what reminded me of HhHH, which remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. The other part comes from Stranger’s fascination with Rinnan. Like Binet’s fascination with Reinhard Heydrich, Stranger’s initial portrait of a man who I can only describe as a monster runs the risk of making us feel sympathetic to Rinnan. Rinnan did truly terrible things to a lot of people while he was given the run of Trondheim and the surrounding area by the occupying Nazi forces. Stranger admits to feeling sorry for the bullied, short child, who would later become a monster. To me, I saw a child who was always going to be attracted to positions where he might be able to bully others unless someone intervened. It’s all too easy to see why Rinnan became a force for evil—very depressingly easy to see.

Stranger marries into a family that has two connections to Rinnan. Stranger’ wife’s grandfather, Hirsh Kommisar, was arrested by Rinnan, before being tortured and killed in a villa that—in the second link to the family—became the home of Hirsh’s son, Gerson. It should have been inconceivable that anyone would stay in the villa at Jonsvannsveien 46, especially a Jewish family, especially a Jewish family that lost a relative to Rinnan and his gang. And yet, Gerson, his wife, and their two daughters lived in the villa for a few years around 1950. They heard all kinds of terrible stories. They even found bullets and bullet casings.

Feder Family Stolperstein, Kolín, Czech Republic (Image via Wikicommons)

To me, Keep Saying Their Names subtly tackles the idea of how the family history of good people can be closely entwined with the history of evil people. Go back far enough, I suppose, and you can find all kinds of skeletons in closets that you have some claim on. For example, so many American family histories cross paths with chattel slavery and/or the theft of land from indigenous people. How do we come to terms with our connections to evil while at the same time celebrating our family’s survival? At the beginning of Keep Saying Their Names, Stranger discusses the Stolperstein. In 1992, Gunter Demnig began installing brass plates with the names and dates of Holocaust victims in places where they lived and worked before they were killed by the Third Reich. The name means stumbling stone, recalling something small that we can trip over at any time. Most of the time, we can walk past them–the same way we can ignore historical events. But when we trip over them or notice them, the Stolperstein cause emotional (and possibly physical) pain as we recall those who are were taken from us during the Holocaust. Like Stranger and his family, we’re not thinking about the past and our losses all the time, but we should periodically contemplate our pasts—good and bad alike.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Bookshop in Berlin, by Françoise Frenkel

Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano explains in the preface to A Bookshop in Berlin that the memoir was written shortly after the author, Françoise Frenkel, escaped to Switzerland and survived the end of World War II. The memoir was originally published as Rien où poser ma tête. The French translates to “nowhere to rest my head,” a fitting title considering that the book catalogs Frenkel’s efforts to stay ahead of the Holocaust. With the help of brave French citizens who hid her and helped her eventually escape to Switzerland, Frenkel travels over the course of 1939 to 1943 from Berlin to Paris, to Nice, to Grenoble and Annecy, near the Swiss border. Unlike so many millions, Frenkel survived.

What drew me to A Bookshop in Berlin was Frenkel’s life during the 1920s and 1920s, when she ran Maison du livre français in Berlin. The Maison was the only French language book store in the city. At first, Frenkel was told that no one would want a French book store in a German city in the aftermath of World War I; the bookstore instead becomes a surprising success. It becomes a city institution among French speakers and I enjoyed reading as Frenkel sang the praises of various French authors whose work she sold. I couldn’t help but contrast Frenkel’s experience with that of Shaun Bythell at The Bookshop, in Wigtown, Scotland. Frenkel’s life as a bookseller is a lot more intellectual than Bythell’s sparring with odd and sometimes belligerent customers.

After Kristallnacht, Frenkel flees Germany. The next four years are a blur, at least as Frenkel wrote it. It seems that she hardly finds a place to rest her head when something happens that sends her into danger: changes to residence and identity papers, round ups, informers, collaborators. Thankfully, Frenkel has good friends. These friends help her hide, organize papers, and get her to the border. But, because the book’s pace is so rapid, it’s hard to get to know any of these amazing people. It’s hard to get to know Frenkel, to be honest.

As a recovered memoir written at the close at World War II and the Holocaust, A Bookshop in Berlin is a remarkable historical find. But as a work of literature, I found it lacking depth. There are moments when Frenkel pauses to appreciate the beauty of Avignon, for example, that provide a little detail. This book left me unsatisfied but, I can’t fault Frenkel too much. This was her first and only book, one that I think she might have written to help process everything that had happened to her since Kristallnacht. I would recommend this to readers looking for a unique story about the Holocaust, one that lets us see the experience of a woman who was persecuted but managed to avoid deportation to the death camps.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Two people repair damage after Kristallnacht, Berlin, 1938, while pedestrians look on.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The German House, by Annette Hess

Annette Hess’ The German House (expertly translated by Elisabeth Lauffer) is a deeply uncomfortable read. It’s supposed to be. As protagonist Eva Bruhns works as a translator at a trial modeled on the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, she finds that the very human impulse to avoid conflict, to let bygones be bygones, has become a national pathology. But, unlike so many of the people if her life, Eva finds that she can’t let history be swept under the rug anymore…especially when she finds her own direct connection to the Holocaust.

I’ve read both fiction and nonfiction about the historical failure for survivors and victims of the Holocaust to find justice. The Allies geared up to fight the Cold War almost before the end of World War II. Programs like Operation Paperclip and Vatican ratlines allowed dozens, even hundreds, of war criminals to escape. Some were allowed to stay in Germany, to take up their civilian lives as if nothing had ever happened. Post-war tribunals were under pressure to wrap up quickly and sentences could be outrageously short for criminals who weren’t in the top tier. When a new wave of trials began in the 1960s, I’m sure it felt like a shock to people who thought they had successfully escaped justice and for their children, who had never been told what their parents did during the war.

Eva Bruhns did not know what her parents did during the war. Her biggest concern at the beginning of The German House is trying to get her boyfriend to finally propose. After yet another disappointing evening in which said boyfriend once more fails to ask the question, Eva is asked to translate for Polish witnesses at a trial. When she takes the job, everyone tries to talk her out of it. Her parents tell her to let things go and not dig up the past. Her fiancé (after he finally does pop the question) tells her to quit because it’s “not good for her nerves.” I took a strong dislike to the fiancé after he went to Eva’s boss and asked him to fire her. Thankfully, Eva turns out to be braver than anyone else in The German House. She keeps working. And when she discovers her own connection to the crimes of Auschwitz, I admired her all the more because learning about these secrets spurred Eva to consider how far the blame might go. Is the next generation guilty for keeping their parents’ secrets?

As if this weren’t enough plot, there is also a very disturbing subplot involving Eva’s older sister. (At times, the book seems overstuffed.) The just thing to do in this plot, as with the larger story, would be to clear the air, to punish the criminal, and to make sure the crime never happens again. But the embarrassment, the questions about how this could have happened, the emotional discomfort all conspire to keep things quiet. The German House is an infuriating read. To an outsider, who doesn’t have any emotional or historical baggage, it is incomprehensible to think that justice would lose out to the feeling of not making a fuss. But then, I can think of people in my own country who don’t want to consider the idea of slavery reparations or who don’t want to discuss the genocides of indigenous people in the Americas because it makes them uncomfortable.

There are no easy answers in The German House. It’s true that the crimes of the Holocaust are so monumental that there is no adequate punishment or redress for them. It’s true that a lot of time had passed. It’s also true that it is hard to take responsibility for unprecedented crimes against humanity. Even though all of that is true, The German House is a stark portrayal of the evil that ostensibly good people can do when they can’t bring themselves to do the difficult but just thing of exposing criminals in their midst and seeing to the punishment of those criminals. The ending of this novel is the perfect last slap in the face to make sure the lesson sinks in.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Displaced Persons, by Ghita Schwarz

I remember learning about the Holocaust in American history classes when I was a high schooler and through fiction. The story always seemed to end with the liberation of the concentration camps. When I got older, I learned about the Nuremberg Trials. After that, I learned that—as is usual with history—the real story is a lot more complicated. Displaced Persons, by Ghita Schwarz, takes place in the messiness, sorrow, and hardship that followed the end of World War II in Europe. The title comes from the name given to people, mostly Jewish Holocaust survivors, who were now “stateless.” For a variety of reasons, they couldn’t go back to their homes. They had to somehow find the strength and wherewithal to make new lives.

Displaced Persons is told in three acts. In the first act, Pavel Mandl wheels and deals to build capital while at the same time creating a make-shift family with two fellow survivors. Chaim is an angry teenager who will not talk about about what happened to him. Fela Berlinka is mourning her lost husband and child and is too sad to go her own way. This act covers the years immediately after the war before jumping to act two, which covers 1960 to 1973. Pavel, Chaim, and Fela are now in America. In this act, Chaim does his best to completely start over and forget everything that happened between 1939 and 1945. Pavel, however, tries to raise his new family with Fela along the lines of his pre-war Polish family. He is religious. He sends his children to Hebrew School and insists that they always clean their plates. Fela falls somewhere between the two extremes. She remembers, although it causes her pain, but she also moves forward with her life. The last act runs from 1989 to 2000, as other survivors begin to succumb to old age. Their children have questions about their experiences and all three of our main characters have to decide, once and for all, if they will speak of what happened to them or stay silent forever.

The best thing about Displaced Persons is the way it captures a spectrum of emotion—survivor’s guilt, intense grief, implacable anger—without belaboring the root causes of all of those emotions. There’s no need to underline why these characters have so much to cope with, psychologically and physically. I also appreciated the fact that there were so many emotional responses. Displaced Persons stands out from other recent Holocaust fiction in that way. I so often see the Holocaust being used as a setting for inspirational stories about the triumph of the human will and that bothers me a lot. Displaced Persons reminds us that nothing about the Holocaust and its aftermath is simple or homogenous. It’s not an easy read, of course, but one that has important things to say to those of us who were born decades after the liberation of the concentration camps.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman

Tom Hope is a good man. He is kind. He is reliable. Unfortunately, he is also unlucky in love. His first wife leaves him twice, foists an illegitimate child on him, and then snatches that child away after Tom grew to love him. But The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman, is not the story of Tom’s first marriage. Instead, it is the story of his second marriage and the long healing it provides for himself and his Holocaust-scarred wife, Hannah Babel. 

I had requested this book so long ago from NetGalley that I had forgotten it was a Holocaust book. The first chapters didn’t do much to remind me, as they open on the last weeks of Tom’s troubled marriage on his farm somewhere in Victoria, Australia, in 1962. Tom frets and broods at his farm, wondering what he might have done to keep his first wife while trying to take care of her child, Peter. He broods even more when, after Peter turns five, his first wife reclaims the boy and whisks him away to a repressive Christian community south of Melbourne.

The only things that finally shakes Tom out of his funk are his determination to start dating again and his fortuitous meeting with Hannah Babel shortly after he makes that decision. Hannah has arrived in Hometown, the biggest settlement near Tom’s farm, to launch a bookstore. Hannah’s quirky joie de vivre brings Tom back to full life. Before long, the two are lovers. Then they are engaged. They’re married before the halfway point of the novel; this book is truly a whirlwind.

The only fly in the ointment is Peter’s situation. The boy is desperately unhappy with the Christians. He’s been singled out for a lot of corporal punishment because he refuses to follow the dictates of the communities leader and because he keeps trying to run away to get back to Tom. Tom would swoop in in a heartbeat to rescue Peter if he could do it with the law’s blessing—and if the presence of a young boy didn’t stir up painful memories for Hannah of the loss of her own child at Auschwitz.

My only criticism—and it’s really more of a quibble—is that it feels a little too fast. I wanted to wallow in this book and its wonderfully unique characters, but it was over almost before I knew it. Still, this is just a preference thing. I think other readers who like unusual love stories and give extra points for an uncommon setting will find a lot to love here.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is great book group fare. There’s plenty to talk about as readers learn more about Hannah’s past and her heartbreaking memories. Tom’s struggles with rejection and love are also a fruitful avenue for discussion. It’s a lightning fast read, so group members are more likely to finish it on time. It’s in a fresh setting and Hillman skillfully recreates rural Australia in the 1960s and early 1970s, both the physical landscape and the social mores. At times, it felt like a lighter version of the classic Australian novel, A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute, which also tells the story of characters finding love at healing in the Australian Outback after harrowing experiences during World War II.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert

This brief novel by Rachel Seiffert has a misleading title. The boy in A Boy in Winter, Yankel, frequently takes backstage to other characters. While Yankel is off stage, hiding and caring for his younger brother, we visit three other narrators. These narrators relate the events of a terrible few days in a western Ukrainian village, the days when the SS and Wehrmacht take the Jews away.

The first narrator we meet is the one I’m most conflicted about. Based on an actual German engineer, Otto Pohl has been sent to Ukraine to built a road across the marshes. At times, he reminded me of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Otto has only joined the Nazi Party and the Wehrmacht to avoid bigger trouble. His wife thoroughly disapproves. And yet, Otto wants to built a road that will last. He tries very hard not to think about the fact that the immediate use for the road is for the German Army Group South to funnel men, weaponry, and supplies deeper into Soviet territory. He has also turned his attention firmly away from the concentration camps and brutality of the Nazis all around him.

The second narrator is a sudden hero. When she discovers Yankel and his brother about to go into a house that has been raided by the SS, Yasia hides them in her cousin’s woodworking shop in town. Unlike a lot of her other fellow Ukrainians, Yasia seems much more interested in surviving the near future instead of claiming independence from the Soviets, the way her family and fiancé are. She doesn’t think about the consequences when she spirits the two young boys away. The third narrator, who only appears in a few chapters, is Yankel’s father, Ephraim. Through his eyes, we see the bewilderment and fear of the Jewish people who have been forced into an old factory before a terrible, terrible event occurs.

A lot is packed into A Boy in Winter. All of our narrators provide troves of backstory and history, without bogging down the pace of a plot that unspools over a couple of days. On paper (‘scuze the pun), I should have liked this novel better. There are heroes. There is well described scenery and plenty of emotional depth. But I’m left feeling dissatisfied by A Boy in Winter. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to know more about the silent boy in question. Perhaps it’s because I had no time for Otto’s cluelessness and cowardice. Yasia did a lot to keep me reading, but not enough for me to recommend this book to other readers.

The Safe House, by Christophe Boltanski

34524403In The Safe House, Christophe Boltanski uses the house on rue de Grenelles, in Paris, as a memory palace to recount his family’s saga from just before the turn of the twentieth century through the 1960s. It’s billed as fiction, but it contains a lot of the Boltanskis’ actual history—making this a work of auto fiction as well as historical fiction. It’s impossible to sort out what’s what, given the family’s penchant for falsifying documents and rewriting memories. But unlike other autofictional books, I don’t mind not knowing. The members of the Boltanski family are all drawn in spot-on psychological portraits. They all have so many eccentricities and phobias that it are so interesting, I don’t care if they’re not real.

Christophe the Narrator tells his story as a tour through the ancestral home. He begins with the car that his grandmother modified so that she could drive without the use of her legs, before taking us to the kitchen, his grandfather’s office and examining room, the parlors, and then upstairs. In each room, he describes the furnishings and decor before moving on to a family story. Christophe the Narrator goes back through four generations of oddness to find out why his family is the way it is

As far as Christophe the Narrator can tell, his great-grandparents came from Odessa after one of the many outbreaks of violent anti-Semitism in the city. The deceptions begin with that generation, as his great-grandmother invents (maybe) a background with a higher class family and a completely different name. The official documents (what remains of them) tell a different story. Christophe the Narrator doesn’t fret too much about the actual history. Fortunately for us, he relies on his memories and the stories he’s gotten from his uncles. Most of The Safe House centers on Étienne Boltanski and his wife, Marie-Élise. Étienne is French, though his parents are Russian Jews. Marie-Élise is a scion of an aristocratic French Catholic family in severe decline.

As we move through the rue de Grenelles house, we see the pair weather World War I, polio, and the efforts of the Nazis and the Vichy government to exterminate Jewish people. Marie-Élise’s efforts to save her husband from the Nazis and the collaborators are the pinnacle of a fascinating family history. I wasn’t sure about this book at the beginning. Its unusual structure put me off until I got a handle on what Christophe the Author was doing. Then, the more I read, the more I enjoyed this family’s foibles, myths, and moments of heroism. This strange novel is brilliant.

The Book of Dirt, by Bram Presser

35215661Unless a family is particularly close knit, garrulous, and practice good document management, the histories of specific members will be forgotten after a generation or two. Documents and photos can give descendants hints about the full, rich lives that were live (except for all the Norwegian potato farmers in my family). When disasters, war, and other destructive events swept through, we lose clues to the past. In the case of the narrator of Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt, the greatest disaster—the Holocaust—not only meant that there were few documents to trace his family’s story, but also that the survivors were unwilling or unable to share their stories. So, the narrator (who is also named Bram Presser) set out to write stories for his maternal grandparents. The Book of Dirt is the product of Presser as narrators’s research and imagination.

Presser the Narrator (a character separate from the actual author of the book, for the sake of this review) only has a few pieces of information about what happened to Jakub Rand and Daša Roubíčková between 1939 and 1945. Rand was incarcerated in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a subcamp of Sachsenhausen. Roubíčková had a similar journey. After the war, they found each other in Prague, married, and emigrated to Australia. Decades later, Presser the Narrator sends emails and letters, then visits Yad Vashem, Beit Terezín, and museums in Prague to try and find out more. This story would have been enough to fill a book, but there are also tantalizing hints in Rand’s story that point to his possible participation in the Talmudkommando, a group of Jewish scholars assigned to sorting and cataloging looted Jewish artifacts and written materials.

When Presser the Narrator tries to find out more about his grandfather’s part in the Talmudkommando, the documentary trail goes cold. The limited paper trail about the group doesn’t mention Rand at all. The lack of evidence suggests that Rand was either mistaken or fabricating his experiences. Presser the Narrator, nothing daunted by the gaps in the record, sets out to write his grandparents’ stories as they might have been. Using his memories of his grandparents’ stories; genealogical research; and research about Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and the Holocaust, Presser the Narrator creates a fuller version of their hardships and how they managed to survive. Presser the Narrator builds a joint memoir that explains why Rand and Roubíčková tried so very hard to never look back or talk about their long, terrible, incarceration.

The Book of Dirt is one of the most metafictional books I’ve read in a long time, so much so that I am reminded of HhHH, by Laurent Binet, in which the author writes as much about his struggles with his research and writing process as he does in actually writing a history of Operation AnthropoidThe Book of Dirt contains family photos and historical records, which are spread through chapters in which Presser the Narrator talks about his research travails and longer chapters that follow his grandparents from the 1930s through the end of World War II. All of these things are blended together into a Frankenstein-like whole.

It’s hard to tell what’s real, historical fact and what Presser the Author invented. Some readers might be bothered by this. At times, I was, because I didn’t always like the liberties Presser the Author took with the historical record. Other readers may like Presser the Author’s premise and find The Book of Dirt a meaningful tribute to his grandparents. There’s a fine like between presumption and audacity, and I’m on the fence about which side I think Presser the Author falls on. If nothing else, I appreciate the thought that Presser the Author wanted to bring back into reality what was previously lost.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. 

Deviation, by Luce d’Eramo

38122394As I read Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (translated by Anne Milano Appel), I had the image of a moth fluttering around a bug zapper constantly in my head. Lucia, the protagonist of this book—which I can only describe as autofiction—resembles nothing so much as a moth furiously and irrationally trying to kill itself. Lucia volunteers to work as a laborer for the Nazis in Germany to get a better look at the Arbeitslager and konzentrationslager because she believes that they can’t be as bad as the rumors make out. As if this wasn’t enough of a deviation, Lucia makes decision after decision that puts her straight back into harm’s way. In this reflective book, d’Eramo uses fiction to explore her decisions, the consequences of those decisions, and her lost memories. Fiction that hews closely to autobiography (or vice versa) seems the best way for her to try and understand her actions.

D’Eramo’s book is a collection of stories that closely resembles what happened to her in 1944-1945 and 1960. Deviation opens with an escape, when Lucia makes her way from the Arbeitslager at Dachau to a Durchgangslager where deportees and laborers live while they perform impressed work for the Nazis and Germans. (Lucia was never interned with Jewish people or any inmates in the death camps. Also, I’m not sure what the right words are to describe the laborers. Some of them are volunteers, but most of them seem to be drifters who got caught by the Nazis.) Lucia has, by this point, learned the ins and outs of camp life. She also has a knack for making the right friends, friends who will steal food and supplies for her. Futher, Lucia knows that, if things get really bad, she can always pull her rip cord: her parents connections to the well-heeled fascists of Italy. In spite of herself, Lucia lands on her feet in the Durchgangslager.

From the first story, d’Eramo takes us back and forth from the events of 1944. We see her running away from an attempt at repatriation to Italy. We see her helping rescue people in Frankfurt after a bombing—only to be crushed under a collapsing wall, an injury that leaves her legs paralyzed. We also see her striving mightily to escape a pernicious suitor after her injury, fluttering from tenuous situation to tenuous situation, with no though to anything except getting a little further away.

Lucia’s behavior is very confusing, even after d’Eramo spends pages looking back in an attempt to understand her younger self. The last “story” is full of thoughts about how she recovered memories only decades later and why she repressed those memories. D’Eramo/Lucia’s theory is that she suppressed and deliberately hid things in the earlier stories because it took her that long to realize that she wasn’t a hero for volunteering for her fact-finding mission. D’Eramo/Lucia retold a less complicated version of her life so many times that it became real, at least until the real memories started to resurface.


Luce d’Eramo in 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Deviation puzzles me greatly. If it wasn’t so obviously modeled on the author’s own life, I would have found it a particularly audacious and worrying piece of fiction. Because it is autofiction, it offers a unique look at the Holocaust—even if it leaves me with more questions than it answers. In spite of my continued confusion about the book, I want to complement Appel, the translator, for her very capable job of transforming d’Eramo’s text into coherent English. There are parts of the book that drag, but I chalk that up to d’Eramo’s maundering.

I’ll leave it to other readers to think about d’Eramo/Lucia’s epiphanies and revelations. I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced by d’Eramo/Lucia. I don’t think the narrator is either. The last story of the book, I think, betrays the narrator’s own bewilderment towards her actions. Lucia’s behavior is so irrational that calm reflection decades later doesn’t seem capable of answering the central question of why Lucia volunteered for an Arbeitslager.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be received 18 September 2018.