**spoiler alert** Gods. This book. Still overwhelmed by it, but if I don't write a review now, then I'm not sure I'm ever going to.
(This will contain...more**spoiler alert** Gods. This book. Still overwhelmed by it, but if I don't write a review now, then I'm not sure I'm ever going to.
(This will contain spoilers for both Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity. If you haven't read CNV yet, then stop right here and go get yourself a copy and then come back when you're done. I mean it.)
It's impossible, I think, to avoid comparing Rose Under Fire to Code Name Verity, and not only because of the characters who appear in both books (I was expecting Maddie and Jamie, but then when Anna showed up...I knew from the first line about her eyes who it was going to be and I was on the subway at the time and I just gasped aloud, probably quite dramatically. Several of the points when this book made me gasp involved Anna, who I love so, so much), but also because they're exploring many of the same themes of atrocity, witness, resistance, and storytelling. CNV and Rose Under Fire offer different possibilities for what it means to experience trauma and strive to tell about it, what form that telling can take and what effects it might have.
But, fundamentally, they're very different books. CNV is, structurally, a lot more complex - it's a tricky, duplicitous web (υφασμα is the word I want - I've been studying so much Greek that I can't stop thinking in it) of a novel, which is about the whole question of unreliable narration, rather than just employing an unreliable narrator. It's much more about questions of identity - if torture destroys the self, destroys the world, as Jean Amery and Elaine Scarry say in their separate ways, then what remains? How can we still have an effect on the world around us? What kind of agency can be maintained? (I read Amery's essay "On Torture" just before reading CNV and it was excellently fortuitous timing.)
These questions come up in Rose as well (especially in Roza's plotline) , but they're more muted because Rose never in fact comes as close to losing herself as Julie does - she always has her poetry, and her identity, and most of all her friends. She is never alone, from the moment of her capture, except for her contained span of time in the punishment bunker. She has Elodie and Roza and Karolina and Irina and...
Julie just has Von Linden, and Anna, and the French prisoners who she can never speak to. Julie is surrounded by people who are invested in taking her apart, in breaking down the meticulously constructed layers of her identities, and must resist the sharp invasion of their calculated torture. Rose is placed within a more brutal, but also more blunt, system, which beats her down more thoroughly but also is broad enough to let more moments of hope and possibility through the cracks. I'd say that, while Julie's identity is more threatened than Rose's, Rose's humanity is more threatened than Julie's? I don't know if that made sense.
(The one I identify with here, in case anyone was wondering, is Julie. Dear gods do I identify with Julie.)
Rose Under Fire offers an easier point of entrance for the reader, in Rose's early naivete and optimism, which are extremely accessible though they made me nervous, as a reader who knew what was coming and was just biting my nails waiting for Wein to drop it on us. It was also a different reading experience for me in that it had more precedent - I think I've read a lot of the same source material that Wein used (memoirs by Wanda Poltawska, Micheline Maurel, and Germaine Tillion), so the book fit into this literary tradition of Ravensbrück accounts, and I experienced all the iconic parts of Rose's experience, the ones that reappear in almost all the concentration camp memoir, as almost archetypal. It was interesting to me to see the ways in which Wein fell into the patterns of phrasing familiar from those memoirs as well, particularly the use of the undifferentiated first person plural when talking about especially grotesque or potentially shameful experiences.
It is an extremely powerful and effective book. As with all of Wein's novels that I have read, the greatest strength is in the subtlety and nuance of the characterization, and the sympathy and humanity that she gives to all of her characters. I thought one of the most powerful parts was actually Rose's interaction with the German soldiers just when she's been captured, the aching pain of those simple human-to-human connections combined with the knowledge of the fate to which they are sending her. And all the Anna Engel scenes, similarly. But the heart of the book is, of course, the relationships between the women, and that was a joy, though a very painful joy, to read. Even at the very beginning, when Rose is devastated over having lost track of Roza and Irina? I was already crying. Her more-than-sisters. This is what matters, this is what I want people to take away from the book - the beauty of survival, the way people can be good and kind and beautiful even in the most horrific of circumstances, how human connection can never be totally eradicated.
It also gave me the one thing that I very much wanted out of CNV but did not get - a depiction of the aftermath of atrocity, of living with trauma, of having to go on. The ending of CNV was very much right for that book, but I very much wished I could have seen what it would have meant for Julie to have to live with the memory of the torture. Rose Under Fire gave that to me, beautifully.
The one thing that I didn't entirely feel comfortable with was the switch into Rose writing for a magazine audience at the end - as a reader of the epistolary text, I sort of felt as though the audience-character bond had been violated, very subtly, and it bothered me that her 'public writing' voice was so similar to her 'journal writing' one. I think even a change from "I'm going to write out the first draft here" to "since I have to write this article I'm going to take notes here" would have made me feel better about it. I'm nit-picking, obviously.
(Other things that really got to me on a very deep level - Rose wishing that she could just hand people the journal instead of telling them, and, of course I will tell the world..)
This book, possibly even more so than CNV, gives me a great deal of hope and courage for my own writing. I just read this interview, where Wein talks about the delicacies of bearing witness to a story not her own, and the trepidations she felt putting this book before an audience: The whole time I was writing it I kept thinking, “WHO is going to want to read this? NOBODY is going to want to read this!". This is some I struggle with so much in my own fiction projects about trauma-related topics - this feeling that, though I believe in the story, though I love the characters deeply, though I think that it must be told, it somehow too gruesome, too devastating, too awful - no one will want to read something like that. Seeing the grace and beauty with which she wrote this work gives me a great deal of inspiration.(less)
Block is very hit or miss for me. This was a miss. The imagery devolved into a caricature of itself, and wasn't unexpected or memorable enough that I...moreBlock is very hit or miss for me. This was a miss. The imagery devolved into a caricature of itself, and wasn't unexpected or memorable enough that I wanted to go along with it (contrast with Ecstasia, where the world interested me enough that I followed the absurd imagery without a qualm) - it read like severely watered down Anne Rice, rather than Block creating the kinds of fantasias that she is best at. The 'autobiography' section towards the end was particularly embarrassing - I wanted to avert my eyes. Might have been better in third person; a little distance from the central character could have allowed more air and irony into the story.(less)
Horribly disappointing. There were hints, here, of a fascinating story, but Lowry's focus felt all off - she lingered on the most unengaging, emotiona...moreHorribly disappointing. There were hints, here, of a fascinating story, but Lowry's focus felt all off - she lingered on the most unengaging, emotionally implausible moments, and raced over the things I, as a reader, actually cared about. The final third felt ludicrous, with laughably low stakes. I was so willing to follow Lowry on this journey, but she threw me out of it at every turn. It is difficult to fight the force of an author.(less)
Not Alexander's strongest work, which is understandable, considering that it was written at the very end of his life and published posthumously. All A...moreNot Alexander's strongest work, which is understandable, considering that it was written at the very end of his life and published posthumously. All Alexander's characteristic, much-loved devices are here - the exotic setting, the feckless dreaming boy going off on a mad quest, the eccentric supporting character, the fiery and wounded love interest, the half-mad sage - but they have lost some of their resonance and freshness, despite the fact that, in a dozen previous books he managed to keep them from getting stale. Part of this, I think, is the fact that Alexander chooses to write The Golden Dream in first person - Alexander's authorial voice is so powerful and, to me at least, so beloved, that Carlo's hyperbolic narration felt affected and severely disappointing. Also, in this final book Alexander shows an uncharacteristic reticence in dealing with his female lead's trauma. I hesitate to even make this comparison because I have always thought of this as one of Alexander's noteworthy strengths - the subtlety, nuance, and hope he brings to discussion of very delicate topics in Prydain, Westmark, and The Iron Ring always astonishes me, and I think he is extraordinarily courageous for a children's book writer - but something about the unlikely escapes from peril Shira manages didn't sit right with me.
It's still a lively, heartfelt book, like all of Alexander's work, and worth reading. But The Gawgon and the Boy was far more fitting as a farewell piece.(less)