Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Skeletons at the Feast

I know it seems baffling to be writing book reviews on Christmas Eve. But, the presents are wrapped, the house is relatively clean, the laundry is spinning, the boys are playing and I need to get these books out of my head so that I can relax. I do enjoy writing them, but when I get backlogged, I can feel a little overwhelmed by all the characters and plots in my head.

Skeletons at the Feast took me to a dark place - the Holocaust. If there weren't so many great books written about this black mark of the world's history, I would ban myself from reading any books on this topic in the future. I hate that such a horrific occurrence is repeatedly used as bait for novelists.

Bohjalian is a good author, though, and does a good job developing his characters, giving them interesting conflict, all the while threading bits of real history into his story that he obtained through diligent research. I'll give him credit for all of the above.

However, part of me felt like Bohjalian decided this was going to be his one and only time to write about the Holocaust so he was going to put it all in one book. The details he gives about the atrocities committed by the German soldiers, the Russian soldiers and the desperate and destroyed left in their wake is so graphic, so skin-crawling brutal that it borders on gratuitous. Including as much as he does has the opposite effect from the one I imagine the author intended and his book almost becomes a WWII caricature. I'm not saying the things he describes didn't happen. No, he seems to have read enough journals and letters to give each horror story credibility, but to include them all -- in the same book, witnessed by the same characters in the space of about a year -- it made these disturbing acts of cruelty seem made-up. I feel it was a disservice to take someone's real life nightmare and diminish it by setting it alongside so many other nightmares so that they all seem somehow....less. Because that is what happens. The first description was like a punch in the stomach, the next a slap on the face and all the rest...swats on an already numb backside.

As much as I wanted to, I didn't dislike this book. Bojahlian creates a complicated story about the fallout from ignorance, naivety, and privilegefound among the rural aristocrats of Poland and Germany near the end of the war. Not forced to witness the daily disappearance of Jews and other minorities, the Emmerilich family was living in relative peace and prosperity, along with their polite relationships with the POWs helping out on their beet farm, until the ugly consequnces of their fuhrer's decisions found their way to the family's country manor, Kamenheim. Anna, The Emmerlich's teenage daughter, falls in love with Callum, a scottish POW, and convinces her parents to allow him to remain with their family instead of sending him back to the prison camps. As Callum and the Emmerlichs flee the approaching Russian troops, the blinders of this family's eyes are removed and they finally see first hand the destruction throughout their land. Along their west-bound journey, they meet and become dependent upon Uri, a young, vigilante Jew posing as a German soldier in order to survive. There is an additional, competely separate story involving a french, Jewish girl named Cecile who is trying to keep herself and her friend, Jeanne, alive while prisoners in a concentration camp that does eventually intersect with Uri and the Emmerlichs but not soon enough to be satisfying

There are plenty of lessons to learn within the pages of this book, but I can't say that it is one I recommend. The author tries to write too many stories at once-- a romance, a look at Nazi sympathizers, stereotypes the Polish people had of Russians, allied prisoners of war, a coming of age story, the gore and sadism of war, Jewish resistance, Jewish survival and an unnecessary epilogue, to make this novel truly great.

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