This is one of those books that I felt, as a fan of both sci-fi and 20th century American fiction, I should read. That feeling of obligation is perhaps what kept it on my ‘to read’ shelf for so long, as often these must-read seminal novels turn out to be disappointing. I am delighted to say that Slaughterhouse-Five is not one of those books. It’s bleak and shocking, but it’s also very funny. What’s more, it’s witty and clever, without being smart-arse. I liked this book, a lot.
The story, told un-chronologically due to a mix of flashback and time travel, is of Billy Pilgrim. Born in Ilium New York, Billy enlists in the army during World War Two, and finds himself captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. He and his fellow prisoners are held in Dresden in the fifth block of an unused abattoir, and so Billy survives and witnesses the aftermath of the fire-bombing of that city in February 1945. On his return from Europe, he qualifies as an optometrist, marries the boss’ obese daughter and has two children, has a PTSD-fuelled breakdown, survives a plane crash, discovers he is a time traveller and is kidnapped by aliens and kept in a zoo on their home planet, where he has a baby with a fellow-abductee, an American film star. None of this is explained, or revealed to you in any particular order, but that doesn’t matter. You just to go with it, and have fun. Boy do you have fun.
The novel is full of remarkable, ordinary characters (failed science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout was a favourite of mine), and the writing is a delight, as the destruction of Dresden is described in the same matter of fact way as the eating habits of Pilgrim’s gargantuan wife. Terrible things happen to people, and one of the things Billy (and you along with him) learns along the way is that while death is just around the corner, but might not be the end. So it goes.
In the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany broke its non-aggression pact with Stalin’s USSR, and marched on and besieged Leningrad. Hitler’s plan was to wipe the city from the face of the earth, and he very nearly succeeded. Over the 872 days of the siege, air raids and artillery bombardment reduced the urban area to rubble, while famine, disease and the extreme cold of Russian winters claimed the lives of 1.5m people. Destruction on that scale is impossible to fathom from my safe middle-class 21st century viewpoint, but in The Conductor, a brave fictional web woven around real-life events, Sarah Quigley brings the shocking statistics into sharp relief through the experiences of individuals.
Dmitri Shostakovich is one of Leningrad’s most famous sons. In the throes of writing his seventh symphony, he is a man possessed, and so delays his inevitable evacuation to the relative safety of Siberia for as long as he can. So immersed is he in his work that he sleepwalks through the campaign of German shelling, losing friends and colleagues to the war effort and the declining health of his wife and children as they waste away before his unseeing eyes. His best friend is violinist Nikolai, who lost his wife some years before. Raising his daughter with the help of his spinster sister-in-law, he is forced to make a choice that haunts him, and he finds solace in the music composed by his friend. Finally we have Elias Karlsberg, the second-rate conductor of the third-rate Radio Orchestra, who is plagued by self-doubt as he struggles to keep his elderly mother alive. Shostakovich flees to complete the final movement of the symphony, and after the full score is flown in over enemy lines, Karlsberg and his orchestra are commissioned to perform it for the dying city.
In the music of Shostakovich, the musicians and their conductor find beauty and passion in horrific circumstances. As the winter snows thaw to reveal corpses that have been mutilated for meat, the orchestra of ‘walking cadavers’ battles through personal loss, illness and malnutrition to deliver their performance, broadcast on loud speakers throughout the city and at enemy lines. It is a testament to Quigley’s writing that such themes as the triumph of the human spirit, or a weak man finding inner strength under extreme pressure do not seem trite or hackneyed. This book moved me.
Rebecca, or Becca, is the youngest of three sisters, and has always been captivated by her grandmother Gemma’s unusual version of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty. Even after her older sisters got sick of hearing it, she would ask her grandmother to tell it. So when her grandmother claims to actually have been Briar Rose on her deathbed, making Becca promise to find out the truth about her family background and the castle she came from, the rest of the family, especially her sisters, are scornful and disbelieving. As Becca starts looking into her grandmother’s past, she realises that no one in the family really knew who Gemma was, or where she came from.
Aided by the handsome editor at the independent newspaper where she works, Becca starts looking into her grandmother’s past, and the claims that her story of Briar Rose is true. Her quest to find her family’s origins take her to first through refugee records in the US, then to Europe, and Poland, and the remains of the concentration camps of the Second World War. More on my blog.