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The Book of Dirt, Bram Presser

download (2)So I have a confession to make: For the last few weeks I have been sleeping with Bram Presser. Literally. He is in bed with me now as a type. Or at least, his book is in my bed and the book contains so much that is true to Bram that it is hard to separate him from the book and the book from him.

I first read this novel when it was in raw manuscript form, unedited, filled with long beautiful passages that existed because Bram thought they had music. And they did. Reading this original version was like being on an archaeological excavation, finding some gems along the way but also getting covered in lots of dust that never seemed to disappear and then finding pebbles stuck between the indentations of your shoes, pebbles that ultimately became part of the shoes themselves.

Reading it a second time with much more focus because now I know the characters and I am familiar with the overall narrative story and some of the nuances that are buried between metaphors and objects, I can focus on the magic that Bram tries to bring to this story. It’s hard not to be captured from the opening epigraph:

“Within a few generations almost all of us will have been forgotten. Those who are not will have no bearing on how we are remembered, who we once were. We will not be there to protest, to correct. In the end we might exist only as a prop in someone else’s story: a plot device, a golem.”

There is so much that Bram is trying to achieve in this book and I was humbled by his revelation that his “grandfather and Vera had survived two different Theresienstadts, on parallel but competing plains in the multiverse that was the Holocaust. No matter what evidence I put forward, his experience would always seem fanciful to her.” This, Bram describes as “the great Perspex wall of Holocaust ownership, the barrier encountered by every member of the second and third generation who tries to make sense of what happened to their family.” Presser’s book is an account of what happens when these children and grandchildren of survivors try and bear witness to honour the memory of those who suffered before them. And the reality, as he recounts, is that there is much that we will never know. This doesn’t stop Presser from trying to gather the various strands of his ancestors’ narratives and he goes to great lengths to make his retelling as accurate as possible – letters to Yad Vashem and other memorial organisations, visits to sites, interviews and photographs and letters from grandparents. It’s a mammoth effort which clearly consumed him for many years.

The legacy of the experience resonates throughout this book – Presser holds his grandmother’s ring –

In the camps, she carried a small gold ring ...

… I held it just once, this witness to her ordeal. It was the touchstone of her legend – stories of courage, of strength, of devotion – and yet, it seemed to insignificant, resting there in my hand. I rolled it between my fingers, hoping it would reveal her secrets. So much of what we’d come to believe seemed impossible but, as one survivor told me, survival itself was impossible.”

The weight of the sorrow in this book is breath-taking.  And where there are strands that Presser cannot verify, he acknowledges it and when there is just no way of knowing, he pays homage to these people long gone by reimagining them – a boy, a name, a family, neighbours … “all of whom will disappear.” This is how Presser shows his “gratitude, recognition, for their lives, for (his) own” … he writes them, he gives them names, his gives them voices. So we come to know Bohus, Gusta, Murmelstein and all the others, as echoes of themselves.

But Presser is not just testifying on behalf of those without voices; he is also raising some profound concerns about Holocaust memorialisation in general. How do we really account for everything and everyone? Who owns the papers, the stories, the photographs and the artefacts? Who is responsible to deal with the many requests for information?

“Most who look back see the Holocaust as some great monolith. We’ve lost the ability to make out the contours, the cracks, the individual shapes. Who still cares about a bunch of books in any one camp? What difference does it make that there was a Central Library in Terezin, a Central Jewish Museum in Prague and, quite separately, a dedicated group, all sorting obscure Jewish books? Distinctions like this no longer matter. The horror has outgrown them.”

It is authors like Presser who seek to find “the forgotten spaces” between the memorials and museums, the relics and artefacts. It is books like these that remind us that in the midst of the horror, people lived.

I have read many Holocaust related books – memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, accounts, fiction based on research, non-fiction. Each of them has added a layer to my understanding and appreciation of this horrific period in human history. While there is value in all these different approaches, very rarely does one find a work that is so rich and majestic in its account. Presser’s book is just this type of book. Despite the fact that at times I was confused by the characters, that I had to pause to remind myself of the connections between people or to catch my breath at the mythical and mystical qualities that lurk behind the text, I was always carried away by unique way that Presser has of capturing a reality that is so unreal… like his description of Auschwitz.

“Its name was a cancer that spread in the soil, sprouting new tumours in the surrounding towns … I walk the rail line through the gaping brick maw that once hungered for human flesh. I could turn around, walk away, but I continue. They are waiting.

It is the vastness that strikes me. The ruins stretch on to the distant forest. One hundred and forty-seven acres. An entire city. To imagine it full, pulsating – I simply cannot. And yet I have seen the mounds of shoes, of glasses, of hair, of dolls. I have searched for familiar names on suitcases. I have witnessed what little remains of their lives. The last gasps of hope. But for me, my generation, it can only be this: an eleventh plague, emptiness.”

And more – “this place swallows name, lives, memories … Thirty-two wooden barracks, four latrine blocks, two kitchen halls. A shit-soaked shrine to cynicism, to arrogance, in this wasteland of the damned. Yet, viewed from the heavens, it is a small tract of dirt. Here, where reason left the world, the impossible flourished.”

So Presser tries to reconstruct his Grandfather as a way to say I love you and in the process he finds himself behind the foundations of Block 31, crouched down on the ground, picking at the blades of grass and digging his fingers in to the mud.

“It is here their story ends, here where I must find peace in not knowing. There will be names – Schwarzheide, Sachsenhausen, Merzdorf – but nothing more. It is too late. What’s left to fill the silence is no longer theirs. This is my story, woven from the threads of rumour and legend, post-memory.

I lie down in the dirt and stare at the crooked red fingers. I try to see the horror but it grows distant, blurring into the autumn sky. A cool drizzle begins to fall. My eyes have grown heavy. The stillness is broken by birds; a great flock, circling the chimneys.”

They chose not to speak and we can easily understand why. But what they have taken with them to their graves has left us, the second and third generations, bereft. Bram Presser, in this magnificent ode to all that is lost, has tried to fill the hole that not knowing leaves.


There will be a hollow, cold space in my bed now that I have finished this second reading. But my mind is filled with a renewed sense of sadness for that rich chorus of millions of voices that I never had the pleasure of hearing.

I invite you all to join me in hearing Bram Presser talk about the journey of writing this book at the Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday 27th August at Waverley Library, Bondi Junction. Tickets available at http://www.shalom.edu.au

 

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Some Gripping Reads

The weather is perfect for curling up in bed with a thrilling read and this week I’ve been doing just that with some of my favourites appearing at this year’s Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival – Nicole Trope, Megan Goldin and Lexi Landsman. I don’t want to share any spoilers, but I do want to tell you that each of these three authors is well worth reading!

Nicole Trope’s sixth book, FORGOTTEN, tells a story that many of us will find familar. Malia is a young mother with three young children, an absent and distracted husband and a pile of bills. One morning she races to the petrol station to buy some milk and makes a decision that in an instant alters the course of her life and leads to the disappearance of her baby. The Detective, Ali Greenberg, who takes the case has her own demons that she is struggling to lay to rest and she knows that solving this case and finding this baby will present some closure to her that she cannot name. Edna, an elderly resident at a boarding house provides a third perspective on the turmoil that unfolds in this gripping domestic noir thriller that critics have compared to the work of Jodi Piccoult.

Megan Goldin’s novel, THE GIRLS IN KELLERS WAY, tells the story of Detective Melanie Carter who is charged with identifying a body found buried near the desolate forest road of Kellers Way. The crime is a cold case and Carter has to rely on Julie West who regularly jogs along Kellers Way to clear her head and escape her own disatisfying existence. Goldin has crafted a story that seems to follow a logical path and then twists to disorient readers, leading them to question everything that they thought was true. The characters are interesting and complex and not always likable and the plot is just uncertain enough to keep readers on the edge of their seat.

 

THE PERFECT COUPLE is Lexi Landsman’s second book and her first in this genre. It is a book filled with secrets; about the past, about relationships and about our own perceptions of events as they unfold. Landsman has chosen a beautiful setting against which to unfold this story and that adds enormous value to the plot. The characters are layered and wonderfully complex which makes for delicious winter reading. Finally, the plot itself is filled with twists and turns enough to ensure that readers keep wanting more.

Each of these fascinating authors brings something distinctive to the genre by creating complicated and nuanced characters balanced against detailed and unexpected twists in the plot. With the artful guidance of Tali Lavi, Trope, Goldin and Landsman will share insights into the craft, the joys and the challenges and inspiration for writing crime thrillers which so artfully engage audiences. Don’t miss this fascinating discussion to be held at the Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival at Waverley Library on Sunday 27th August at 2pm. Book Now!

The Dark Room, Rachel Seiffert

xthe-dark-room.jpg.pagespeed.ic.Ffw8CWEf_mThis is the third of Rachel Seiffert’s books that I have read. I have loved them all in very different ways; but I think this one most for the cavernous depths that it attempts to navigate in such soulful and patient ways. It is also the most complex of the Seiffert books that I have thus far read – the others have been relatively straight forward in terms of their narrative structure, but this one presents three vignettes which each shed light on some different aspect of the war. Reading these vignettes made me feel as though I was looking through a tiny porthole, seeing a slice of history, a moment of time, captured and held in the palm of my hand, separated from everything else happening at that moment but somehow connected because of its inescapable context. I loved the way that Seiffert managed to create this reading experience. It made it rich and particular and somehow spirited.

In the first story we meet Helmut. A German boy born to German parents. He is wholesome, the apple of their eye but imperfect, missing a muscle in his chest. The parents mourn but are determined to provide him with every opportunity that other boys his age have. Helmut flourishes, relatively unaware of his difference, until he is rejected by Hitler’s army and then, unable to serve, he becomes the flanuer, walking the streets of Berlin, trying to find a formula to account for the numbers of people leaving. Helmut apprentices as a photographer and it is through his camera lens that we, the readers, come to know Berlin. “He can see the war in the queues outside shops, and the ever-present uniformed figures. But tonight he can also see … an ordinary, busy city. Lively and full. … the faces, arms and legs, the many hats on many heads… His Berlin, his home.”

But Helmut’s Berlin is not as pure as he imagines and one day he stumbles upon a group of Nazi’s herding a community of gypsies to their death. He is shocked by what he witnesses and even more traumatised by the fact that he fails to capture the raw emotion of the moment on film. He flees and Berlin crumbles around him.

The second segment of the book is called LORE. The perspective presented in this piece is vastly different to that of Helmut. It’s Bavaria, 1945 and Lore is one of the daughters of a Nazi officer. The war is over and Lore’s mother is trying to save her children. In desperation, she gives Lore money and jewelry and tells her to take the children and travel to Hamburg to her grandmother. Lore is 12. Her mother is arrested by the Americans and Lore is left to fend for her young siblings. This part of the book is majestic in its scope, and even though it is short, it has epic qualities. I won’t spoil the story but Lore finds help in an unlikely source and eventually finds her way to Hamburg and her grandmother.

The third vignette, MICHA, is set in Autumn 1997. It tells the story of Micha, a young man who discovers that his grandfather was an SS officer and becomes obsesssed with finding out exactly what his grandfather did during the war. He travels to Belarus where his Opa served, carrying with him his photograph, hoping that someone will identify him and testify to his actions. In Belarus, Micha has meets a man called Kolsenik who himself committed terrible sins during the Nazi occupation. Kolsenik says: “I made the choice, you see? I watched the Germans kill the Jews for almost two years and then I killed, too. It was my choice, you see?” and then: “It is hard to say this, Herr Lehner, even after so many years. It is difficult to know this about myself, do you see? I can give all these reasons. I lost my father. I was hungry, I wanted to help my family, orders were orders, I was not responsible, they said the Jews were Communists, Communists caused my pain. Over and over I can say these things. Nothing changes. I chose to kill.”

Although it is spare, her writing is filled with movement, across plains, over hills, through rubble. Reading this book is quite literally a journey through an experience that is at times quite macabrely beautiful and at times so sharp and painful that it hurts to keep going.  The boundaries of the story are as firm as the boundaries of the spaces that Seiffert explores – Micha stands in the room of the museum. He “doesn’t cross to the other side of the room; he doesn’t dare risk seeing the same faces again over there.”

Seiffert’s message is expressed by Micha: How do you make it right? “Is it enough to feel sad?” Kolesnik’s answer is simple: “How can I apologise? Who can I apologise to? Who is there to forgive me?” There is no punishment fit for this crime.

And throughout this magnificent novel, there are the beautiful bookends of photographs – capturing a moment in time in still life frame, artificial but preserved and remembered, a testimony to existence like a forgotten song on the wind.

This is one of those life changing books. You have to read it. At least once.

You can hear Rachel Seiffert speak about this book at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on August 27th at Waverley Library.

The German Girl, Armando Lucas Correa

correaThe first few chapters of Correa’s historical faction didn’t excite me and I still not entirely sure why. I found myself struggling with the narrative, with the flow, with the general style. It was odd. Correa’s book presents such a vital insight into a period of world and Jewish history which intrigues me. I have never read a book about this period that I didn’t find fascinating on some level; indeed, except for ‘The Kindly Ones’, I have never left a book about this era unread. (And I have hopes that I will eventually finish ‘The Kindly Ones’!)

I loved the way Correa had set up his narrative, the tale of two girls separated by years and by continents but unwittingly connected by history and family. I loved the juxtaposition between their contexts and how their voices twisted through this novel at some points filled with longing and at others with pain. On so many levels I could see the value of Correa’s work and appreciate it, and so it was that I persisted with reading it and how truly glad I am that I did.

Armando Lucas Correa has told a magnificent and bold story which provides an infinitely valuable insight into the history of refugees both in the context of the Holocaust and in modern terms. Correa’s tale of Leo and Hannah is one of the most beautiful, unrealised love stories that I think I have ever read. In its simplicity, it captured all the magic and essence and possibility of young love and the tragedy of its outcome speaks to the painful reality of many refugee stories.

There is much to herald about this book. But, instead of ruining the pleasure of your reading, I will point out only that what has stayed with me long after I finished the final page is the list of the people that Correa includes at the novel’s end. People who boarded the St. Louis with hopes for survival and a better life, few of whom survived. The simple reality of this story makes it memorable far beyond the voices of its characters.

Courtesy of Shalom:Sydney Jewish Writers Festival and Simon & Schuster, you can enjoy hearing Correa In Conversation at Double Bay Library on February 28th at 10.30am. Tickets are essential so book now before the event is sold out.

 

Far To Go, Alison Pick

download-1There was something in Pick’s writing that made this a very tender book, despite the context of the Holocaust and War in Europe. There was a softness in spaces between the hard  realities of life on the outside, perhaps the ‘real’ world. I fell into this book, like one falls into soft linen puffed up with feathers and as I sunk into the prose I truly felt embraced by these characters and their journeys.

 

I remember a dim street, late fall, and my mother at the end of it, a kerchief knotted under her chin. She was looking back at me already then, as though across a great gulf of time. I tried to move towards her but the street was so long, and there were people blocking my path. When I caught another glimpse, she had taken off her scarf. It was crumpled in a ball in her hand, which she hep against her chest. A bit of wind played with the hair around her face. She held my gaze – there was something she was telling me, something she needed me to know. The whole history of our family was contained in that look. Then she turned a corner and was gone.

There were so many memorable passages in this novel which I think is testimony to Pick’s intentions in this writing:

Intellectually, I wanted people to understand that evil is slow and creeping, that political and social pressure can cause even everyday people to act reprehensibly, and that nobody is immune. I hope the book causes readers to reflect on what they would do in the characters’ situation. From an emotional perspective, I wanted the readers to be caught up in the Bauers’ story, and to really feel the pain and terror of what faced them.

What is interesting about Pick’s narrative structure is that she utilises the voice of a researcher to slowly expose this story. In this instance, the narrator herself, Anneliese, is as interesting as the characters. She is anti-social, a perfectionist, intrigued by the letters that she has uncovered and determined to find the story that they are hiding. Her journey toward finding the truth helps readers comprehend the notion that the past shapes our identities, that “(m)emory bleeds out, or gets covered in snow” and that we are tasked with remembering on behalf of those who no longer can.

I found Pick’s approach to the genre of Holocaust fiction refreshing, although at times justifiably haunting. With beautiful simplicity she has danced around some of the most harrowing decisions that faced those living through the Holocaust – parents, children, carers, businessmen, lovers. For doing this without sounding judgemental, Pick deserves recognition and acclaim.

We can never know what tomorrow holds, and at times we cannot understand from where the past comes. Our task is to live each day as though it is a gift.

The train of memory sleeps on its tracks. At night, in the station, the shadows gather around it, reaching out to touch its cool black sides. The train stretches back, far out of eyesight. Where it comes from is anyone’s guess.

 

The Toymaker, Liam Pieper

9780143784623It 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.

 

The Women’s Pages, Debra Adelaide

9781743535981When I read Debra Adelaide’s novel, The Household Guide To Dying, I loved it so much that I emailed Adelaide to thank her for writing it. The Household Guide To Dying was a stellar novel in my mind it set Adelaide up to be one of the great Australian women’s voices of our era.

The Women’s Pages was strangely more ambitious than The Household Guide To Dying which deals with Delia Bennet’s foray into her own death. Bennet writes household guides to all sorts of things so when she discovers that she is indeed dying, she decides to write a guide to doing so. The book is so full that it’s hard to describe – I’ll settle with Nicola Walker’s description from the Sydney Morning Herald: “Bennet may have one foot in the grave but Debra Adelaide has created one of the most irrepressible and beguiling heroines to emerge in Australian fiction since Sybylla Melvyn made her appearance in My Brilliant Career.”

The Women’s Pages doesn’t have the same thematic weight of The Household Guide to Dying, but it makes up for this with the complexity of its structure which clearly heralds to readers that Adelaide is a writer of note. In this novel she weaves together a beautiful story with a stunning insight into a writer’s inability to escape the desire to tell a story. She combines these two elements through Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I can hardly do the novel justice with this description. At times I wasn’t entirely certain that Adelaide had pulled off this massive feat, but overwhelmingly there was a greatness tugging at my reader’s senses and it was not difficult to drown in the lives of two fascinating protagonists who so clearly represented women at different times in Australian history.

There is no doubt that Debra Adelaide has a wonderful sensitivity when it comes to writing. There are emotions that hover beneath her words that are almost tangible and it is this that makes reading her work so pleasurable.

 

 

The Widow, Fiona Barton

downloadI’m a huge Lisa Gardener fan and when I spotted this book, The Widow, on the Red Hot Reads shelf at the library, sporting Gardner’s seal of approval – “the ultimate psychological thriller” – I figured it was a good bet.

I wasn’t entirely disappointed. There were certainly captivating elements of this thriller. The protagonist, Jean Taylor, was mostly convincing and seemed complex enough. The plot was well structured and the supporting characters were interesting. But somehow, there was not enough friction in this book for me or perhaps it was too slow or predictable … I’m not entirely sure. I enjoyed reading it but it didn’t leave me quivering or wanting more.

Nine Days, Toni Jordan

20644317I was sure that I had read this book – and indeed, I have.  And it didn’t matter one bit. I loved it. Every part of it. Stark, beautiful, tender and such an immaculate glimpse into life in Australia both today and during the war.

I’m not generally a fan of Australian fiction, but Toni Jordan is the exception. She’s an author whose work never fails to impress and is always diverse and filled with literary surprises of the best kind.

I won’t review it again. I’ll just say that Toni Jordan is a star and I can’t wait to read her latest book – Our Tiny, Useless Hearts.

A Little Life, Hanaya Yanagihara

01bookyanagihara-master180 This book broke my heart. It has taken me three attempts to read it – the first two times I had to stop because I simply couldn’t breath for the weight of all the sorrow. But I persisted. And I’m glad for it. The writing is magnificent. Each sentence is like an orchard or a field of wild flowers in bloom with the soft mountain breeze creating an orchestra of movement and the slow echo of a waterfall or spring shifting in the background. I found myself repeatedly falling into the prose, drowning, not just in the sadness, but also in the sheer beauty of Yanagihara’s prose, the tone, the majesty. I highlighted whole pages, emailed them to my friends, read and reread.

There was so much to love that it is hard to know where to start… For me, the thing that I found most intriguing was the fact that this is a story about the bond of male friendships. It’s rare to read something that so intimately explores not just male characters who are so complex and diverse, but also the ties that bind them. I loved the camaraderie, the at times fraught tension between the individual creative genius and the different connections between these four characters – the jealousies and the love. I loved the honesty. And the lies. And although the sorrow is burdensome, it is also very rich in a way that I have never before encountered.

What also struck me about this book was its driving theme of happiness – What is it? How do we define it? Can we define it?

But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?

While this thread meanders throughout the novel, it is coupled with the motif of love and friendship and the blurry lines between these two states – “And still, the friendship spooled on and on, a long, swift river that had caught him in its slipstream and was carrying him along, taking him somewhere he couldn’t see.” Yanagihara comes back to this theme repeatedly, exploring friendships not only between these four protagonists but also between them and other characters, and relationships in general – the potential that exists when “both people … recognise the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well.”

Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honoured by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

There is so much to peel away from this narrative but to do so would be to spoil it for those intending to read it. I will only say that I loved it but I hated it at the same time. Part of me wants to read it again. And again. And again. Another part of me wants to bury the memory of this book forever.