Lilac Girls – book review

Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly

Usually I shy away from war stories.

Too often, I find they are written as entertainment, like any other fiction, with enhanced heroes and baddies and a guided narrative that tells you how to think and feel, peppered with examples of man’s inhumanity to man, with lashings of mass murder, rape and torture and without any wonder that people should behave in this way at all. I don’t want to be entertained by violence.

There are exceptions, of course, but these are by extraordinary writers who handle war with great care and purpose. And the purpose should not be gratuitous entertainment, not even solely “lest we forget” (which is better served by non-fiction). It is to explain and help us come to some understanding. If an author is going to have a character do horrendous things, there must be some insight into their psychology other than the fact they were at war and everyone behaved that way. Lesser writers should leave well alone.

And so to Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, who gets two out of three characters spot on, but doesn’t begin to reveal the third.  It’s a book about Polish children subjected to horrific abuse in Nazi concentration camp, a tall order for a first novel and the kind of book I usually avoid at all costs, but given to me with strong recommendation.

The cover has three women walking companionably arm in arm. Wrong!  The three women who tell the story do not, at any time or in any sense, walk arm in arm.

  1. Caroline is a New York socialite, a rich do-gooder who, despite the silver spoon in her mouth, is a terrific heroine. She sticks her oar in every way she can from the comfort of home with relentless energy and helps the unfortunates of Europe with a clear moral purpose. I love to think that such people existed, and yes – she is based on a true character. Kelly invented a lover for her, which was unconvincing and detracted from her story.
  2. Kasia is a rabbit. A Polish child captured with her sister, friend and mother and sent to Ravensbruck where the girls are experimented on like rabbits, their legs cut open and infected with tetanus and gangrene, rubbed with dirt and broken glass to test the efficacy of sulfa drugs. This is a true crime, though Kasia is a composite character.
  3. Herta joins the story early and we rather like her, a young German medical student from an educated home who is ambiguous in her humanity, but appears liberal and ambitious. She worries about boys, her father’s health, money. She practices surgery on the meat in her uncle’s butchery and to earn her school fees she allows his weekly rape. “There was curious comfort in the sameness of it.” Really?   She progresses from working in a clinic with children who suck their thumbs to her first murder at Ravensbruck relatively quickly, because she needs the money and wants a more advanced job. Then she befriends Kaisa’s mum, but tortures Kaisa and the other “rabbits” anyway. This is beyond comprehension.

In the author’s notes, Kelly asks “How could she have done what she did and especially to other women?” I think, without any insight into this problem, Kelly should not have given this character a voice.

The doctor’s character aside, the novel does service in illuminating this episode and the fact that it is so widely read and discussed is testament to the serious research behind the novel.

Lest we forget.

 

 

Knowledge of Angels – book review

Knowledge of Angels, by Jill Paton Walsh

A story with such a title, set in medieval times on a Mediterranean island with a wolf child and written by Jill Paton Walsh – I was smitten before I started reading.

Paton Walsh writes with the beautiful clarity of the best English writers for children, with clear simple phrasing, elegantly expressed ideas and a compelling other-worldliness. You dive into her books and are submerged.

This is an adults’ book – I think I read it first in my late teens and found it quite disturbing, but have re-read it often since and find the reading a vivid experience. I recently walked on the rocky shores of just such a place as this is set and recognised the world she describes: the monastery with the orange grove and the goats on the mountains and everywhere the view of the “hazy dazzle” of the sea.

The question that underlies the story is this: if a child has no human contact – raised by wolves in this case – will she come to recognise God instinctively?

The enigmatic Palinor “falls in” from an unseen ship and swims ashore. He claims to come from an island no one knows and the local prefect tells him must register as a visiting Christian, Saracen or a Jew.  He claims to have no religion, so is locked up. “A man of no religion might do anything.”

As a heretic, he is condemned to death unless the gentle scholar Beneditx can convert him. The men read and talk and discuss proofs of God but Palinor is not convinced and  Beneditx eventually questions own beliefs.  Palinor’s last hope to escape death lies with the child rescued from wolves on the mountain.

As an experiment, Amara the wolf child is kept in strict confinement at a monastery, where she is taught to speak but there is no mention of God.

If she discovers God on her own, this is proof that everyone is born with knowledge of divinity. If she has no concept of God, this proves that religion is not innate and must be taught, and therefore a man, like Palinor, who has never been educated in God is not guilty of turning away from God, but pitiable and ripe for redemption.

An Inquisitor from Rome arrives, hell bent on burning heretics at the stake.

God certainly moves in mysterious ways.

 

Not Forgetting the Whale – book review

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger

This is my “go to” book when someone asks for a good read. It’s light and lively, a good tale, with a back story that dives deeper than the whale.

Apparently there are three, three letter words that can bring down civilisation.

War. Oil. Flu.

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger, tells the story of Joe, a young, clever analyst who uses modelling to predict the coming of the third – a flu with the destructive force of a plague, capable of disrupting the world and tipping us into apocolypse.

It’s pretty big stuff for a story set in a little town in Cornwall, with nicely recognisable characters, networks of romance and relationships, and a visiting whale (cue book club discussions on symbolism, metaphor and allegory).

In the growing disaster as the fragile connections that underpin our world collapse, the town becomes an Ark as Joe and the locals close the borders and struggle to survive.

Joe’s modelling predicts that if Oil, War or Flu should bring us down, total collapse is inevitable.  But his clever computer, which analyses economics, supply chains, political activity and journalist reporting world wide, has missed the human factor.

Give this book to the pessimists in your life.

 

The Wish Child – book review

The Wish Child – by Catherine Chidgey

If you’d asked me what I thought of Catherine Chidley’s The Wish Child as I was reading, I might have been slightly ambivalent. The writing is poetical and descriptive but I had to concentrate to hear the different voices of the characters – Eric, an adopted boy from Poland, Sieglinde from Berlin and a third, unexplained, narrator.

But ask me now I’ve put the book down and and I’ll say: here is a book that needs to be read. The story and the confusion over the shadowy narrator is a slap in the face that haunts me.

The story is set in Germany during WW2 and told through the everyday lives of Sieglinde and Eric’s families. The fact that Sieglinde’s father is employed to cut words like “love” and “truth” out of books is just one strange part of the slowly twisting background of their world. The is an horrific and violent event – and I guess brutality is a byline of every war story – but I felt this was slightly gratuitous.  It feels raw and clumsy in the otherwise gauzy read – maybe that is quite deliberate, but I almost put the book down there.

I’m glad I didn’t, because the poignancy of ending made me go back and read the whole thing again, immediately.