It was hard to review this book which is remarkable because it really wasn’t a difficult book to read. On the contrary, I mostly found it captivating and I was, in fact, disappointed when it finished. But it is hard to review because I feel as though in this writing Liam Pieper set himself a massive task: to write a book of fiction with the Holocaust as the backdrop rather than lurking in the foreground; a book which doesn’t have a Jew as its protagonist. And, while I enjoyed the book and found the character intriguing, I am not entirely certain that Pieper did justice to this mammoth task.
I was hooked from the opening lines:
‘Let me tell you a story about my grandfather.’ Adam leaned into the sentence, taking care with the syllables, throwing emphasis on the ‘my’, weight on the ‘grandfather’. He loved saying it; he loved to boom it out like he was the invisible, omniscient voice at the start of a movie trailer.
Not only did Pieper grab me with this opening, he sunk in his claws on page two with a wonderfully uncomfortable juxtaposition between Adam’s reverence for his grandfather and his lascivious sexual encounter with a minor. The early narrative structure was fascinating. I was desperate to know more about Adam, about his wife Tess and of course, about Grandpa – this lurking character who is mostly voiceless yet such a major force in the novel and so central to the secrets and lies that are so delicately buried.
While I was entranced by the characters, I felt as though Pieper stopped himself short from properly fleshing them out. Adam was suitably shallow, adept at repeating his grandfather’s story and revelling in the heroism of his grandfather’s survival. But there are elements of Adam’s responses to crises that seem too unrealistic – he doesn’t seem to ‘feel’ … and Tess, his wife, in so many ways she is more dynamically explored than Adam, but she too conveniently wraps things up at the novel’s end and readers are left with only hints of deeper and more disconcerting issues like Kade, their son’s, slow development.
Pieper smoothly explores some complex themes – family, relationships, business and ethics; but the very essence of this novel, the deep, dark secret that Arkady buries, which presents such a challenging philosophical quandary, doesn’t pack enough of a punch for me. I won’t spoil the reading for you, but I was hoping that Pieper would make more of this profound and thought-provoking undercurrent.
Perhaps I am too judgemental … or perhaps I have read too much Holocaust related fiction … but while I see the merits of Pieper’s telling, I also think there was great potential for this to be one of those truly magnificent novels that is comfortable going places which other novels are never brave enough to tread.