Black Elephants's Reviews > Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
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Feb 17, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: fiction
Read in November, 2008 , read count: 1

A book I heard made much of last year was Chris Bohjalian's Skeletons at the Feast, and when I got my hands on a free copy, I thought: Excellent. But in truth, I really had no idea what to expect. When I read the inside flap (hardcover goodness!), I learned the story was set during WWII, which never bodes well for a happy story. As so often happens, I put the book on my shelf, looking for happier reads.

This last weekend, I finally picked it up and finished it in two days. It is a good read, but it is not as "timeless" as the critics would have you believe. Who knows though? I find it so tiring when publishers and critics insist a book is already a classic, even before its been "alive" for two years. Instant classics are possible to identify. I just think the term gets used more than it deserves.

So what made Bohjalian's study of the end of WWII a good read? For one, the story offered a perspective that was a step or two away from what many may think such a book is about. It does focus on the genocide of Jews and other "undesirables." It focuses on the blindess of the German populance for many, many reasons. Bohjalian also tells his story through several affable characters: there's the Emmerich family who is fleeing the Russian front with all their belongings. They were once affluent German farmers but now they must join the rabble in its race for safety. The patriarch is wise and pragmatic. The matriarch is passionate and tender. The sons are patriotic and manly, and the daughter is capable, lovely and on the verge of womanhood. Oh yeah, she's in love with a POW Scotsman who's been indentured to the farm and is joining them on their flight. There is the French Jew Cecile who is being forced to march from work camp to work camp. Despite the losing war cause, Cecile marvels at how the Third Reich still makes time to hide the inmates away from the public eye. Then there's Uri, who is my favorite character of the book. He's a Jewish guy who managed to escape a concentration camp at the beginning of the war. For the last two years, he wanders from identity to identity, eluding everyone and sabotaging whenever he can. He's on the search for his family if he can find them.

Bohjalian builds a little bit of suspense in his story. He makes the reader question who is going to die and who is going to survive. This especially happens toward the end of the book when the I realized things were looking too good for the characters. I guess that was kind of the point—the war is on the verge of ending on every page, so things have to get better, right? People will stop torturing others at any moment, right?

Bohjalian's story is also unique in that it focuses on the brutalities inflicted on the Germans in the final days of the war. The reader wonders: Was it right? Was it wrong? Or is it neutral, like what Uri does in that you kill whoever is trying to kill you? I can't say.

Anyway, if you're looking for an read that is interesting, I recommend this book. It has its thoughtful moments, its tense moments and its tender ones, which carry the reader through unto the last page when the war is finally over.
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