Mar 03, 10
Read from February 18 to March 03, 2010
This book is like molasses. Or like a Miramax film vying for an Academy Award for Best Picture — beautiful and evocative, but slow-moving toward its riveting denouement. The book is rich on atmosphere and the characters are fully-formed, the story is sweeping. I really mean it: I can picture this book as a film – sometimes as I turned the page, I could hear the strings playing, the gentle thud-thud of a bass informing me that things were not okay.
But it doesn’t have the break-neck speed of your average mystery novel. I think describing it as a mystery is misleading. It’s a multi-faceted piece of literature, with layers upon layers of story and history: Passion, guilt, cover-ups, Communism, redemption.
The book did take me almost a week to read because of its pacing. The last 60 pages are unputdownable…but huge chunks in the middle left me bored and wanting more. As I mentioned in my last post, a story would build and gain momentum and then the author would steal you away from it. But ultimately I like the book as a whole and the ending makes this book recommendable. But beyond me recommending this book, I feel a strong urge to talk about it — discuss the sadness written on its pages, the horrors of Poland: Nazi Occupation, Auschwitz — the slaughtering of Jews in their backyards, then the arrival of Russia and Communism. I was wondering why it was so hard to find a book for Poland that wasn’t about these things. Well, it’s clear: Poland’s history is a sad tale of a people repeatedly oppressed.
Much of the narrative is focused on the obliteration and subsequent forgetting of the Jews. There is an undercurrent of fear from those who survived World War II and Communism that the Jews will return to reclaim their houses. Not only was 10% of the Polish Jewish population exterminated, but (in the novel) those left behind did all they could to erase their memory there. One particular image is of people covering up the mezuzahs on the door-frames or ripping them off after they occupied an abandoned home that used to belong to a Jewish family. I remember when my grandfather first explained to me what a mezuzah was and he showed me how he kissed his fingers and then touched the mezuzah (a case that holds a verse from the Torah). Learning that custom from him had a big impact on me as a child — I was proud to share that custom with him when I visited.
And the images in this book of people actively destroying anything that reminded them that a now-dead Jewish person lived in that house? It was jarring. I thought of my grandfather a lot. He passed away in 2006 and I miss him. I miss him because I still exist and can honor his memory — but when an entire population is killed from a country? Who then is left to carry on those stories and traditions? That is only one story thread in this novel…but it is a powerful one.