Owlcat’s CBR V review #21 of The Light In the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, so I always look forward to reading his newest novel.  Recently, he has occasionally drifted away from the New England locales of most of his novels, for which he has been criticized, although I continued to enjoy his stories like Skeletons At the Feast, with the theme of a defeated Germany in WWII,  and The Sandcastle Girls, with a theme of the Armenian genocide that few Americans know much about.  The latter was particularly good.  Therefore, when I read that The Light in the Ruins was another historically based novel, I did not expect that would be problematic for me.  However, although this was an interesting story and basically well written, somehow the author missed his mark and I came away from it feeling disappointed.

As is typical of many novels these days, there are parallel stories going on, with one story ultimately affecting the other.  In this case, Bohjalian is telling the story of a noble Italian family, the Rosatis, in Tuscany during WWII in 1943/44, who have for many years during the conflict managed to avoid and ignore the worst of it, until the war began turning against the Italian allies, Nazi Germany.  When Germany discards their facade of being allies with Italy and essentially become their occupier, and as a result there is conflict and turmoil within the Rosati family.  Two sons are in the Italian army, Marco in Sicily and Vittore in Florence. The assumption by their family is that they are in “safe” locations. Marco, however, experiences first hand, the Allies’ invasion of Italy and the real horrors of the war.  Vittore convinces himself he is protecting the Italian art world as he works with the Germans and their art thievery. At the villa, called Chimera, the remaining family refuses to recognize the reality of the war that they have so far been able to ignore, living with what they consider some minor inconveniences, and attempting to continue living as much as possible as they always have. They believed the family would be reunited when the war ended and they could resume their prior lives of comfort and wealth.  At the villa are Antonio Rosati, the patriarch of the family, his wife, his son Marco’s wife and two children, and his daughter Cristina.

Gradually, however, the war invades their quiet, “normal” lives. The Germans have intruded on them and neighbors and townspeople are beginning to resent the family’s having German guests at the villa, and become even more suspect when one of them and Cristina begin to fall in love begin to have a relationship. The Germans at the same time, begin to feel nothing but disdain for the family and the villa becomes a distortion of the safe haven it had once been for the family.

This story of the Rosati family is told through chapters that alternate with the story of monstrous murder in 1953 of two family members.  This part of the story is partially narrated by the murderer himself, though the reader has no idea who the murderer is.  I made several guesses and until the end, wasn’t even close.  The other part of this murder mystery focuses on Serafina Bettini, a female homicide detective who had previously been a partisan during the war.  She is badly scarred both physically and emotionally but a good detective, and the Rosati killings result in her own demons resurfacing, so this becomes a story within a story within a story.

As usual, Bohjalian’s characters are well developed, well defined, and each a dichotomy of good and bad.  In other words, they are normal people, if somewhat flawed, dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Even some of the Germans are portrayed with a conscience and conflict within, although some are portrayed as pure evil.  Everyone, including Rosatis themselves, as well as a number of the Germans and even the partisans, are forced by their situations as a result of the war to make choices that are nearly impossible to make.  A good author asks the reader to question themselves as to what they would do in a similar situation, and in this, Bohjalian hits his mark.

Overall, however, I came away from the story tired of the alternating chapters, feeling it was a contrived gimmick, and since the story was told within a 10-year span, don’t think it was a necessary tool to move it along.  A more linear approach would have worked better for me.  I also did not like the murder’s narration, which was generally at the beginning of several of the 1953 chapters;  I found it distracting and not particularly creative. I have noticed a tendency with Bohjalian, too, more recently to focus on the physical horrors within a story to the point that he is beginning to become too graphic and much less subtle than he has been over the years.  Reading this book would make me a little more hesitant to read his next one as a result.  So, I can’t really recommend it and feel badly that I can’t.  I am hoping he returns to his more insightful self-discovery stories and style, which he could still pursue with historical based novels, if those are his choice.  I’m hoping this book was more of an experiment to see what his readers would tolerate and/or enjoy.

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Malin’s #CBR5 Review #72: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

This book is a companion novel to Elisabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. You don’t need to have read that book to understand this one, but you should anyway, because it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. And you like good books, don’t you?

Rose Justice is a young American woman, working for the ATA in Britain during World War II. She made friends among the other ATA pilots, she’s dating a young soldier, and she writes poetry in her spare time. Her job is to taxi planes to various locations, and is on an out of the ordinary mission to France, when her plane is captured by the Germans, and she is sent to Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp during the autumn of 1944. As very little news of the camps was actually released during the war, and what little came out was usually so horrifying that people didn’t think it could be true, Rose has no idea what she’s in for.

More on my blog.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #28: The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley

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The Spy Who Loved is the biography of Polish socialite Christine Skarbek who became British spy Christine Granville during World War II. While Christine’s life is fascinating in and of itself, this biography also reveals the difficult road of women who served in non-traditional roles during the war as well as highlighting Poland’s tragic history in the 20th century.

Mulley has clearly done an enormous amount of research on her subject, who certainly didn’t make it easy. Granville left very little behind, and the men who served with her and loved her made a pact not to reveal details of her life and to protect her memory after her death. Mulley tracked down sources written by contemporaries and was able to access personal archives as well as interview some who knew her. When her sources differ on the details of an event, Mulley goes to great pains to present the reader with all the conflicting stories before offering her own opinion as to what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether or not Ian Fleming and Christine were acquainted or involved with one another, and perhaps Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale is based on Christine. Or not. One of my criticisms of this book is that it gets bogged down in details that could have been relegated to a footnote. Another is that the writing is sometimes repetitive. As a result, the story can drag along.

The best chapters are those that deal with Christine in action. When the war broke out in Poland, she was in South Africa with her husband. They made their way to England and Christine was the first woman involved in British special operations (spy stuff). Her goal was to get back to Poland to fight the Nazis and win back Poland’s freedom. The missions she supported were thrilling to read about. It was also interesting to note that because Christine was in Poland on behalf of Britain, the Poles who supported the government-in-exile were suspicious of her and wouldn’t work with her. This led to frustrating complications for Christine that had an impact on her work throughout the war.

As the Nazis conquered Eastern Europe, Christine in her lover/lifelong friend Andrzej Kowerski managed to keep ahead, working their way through the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean before reaching Cairo. Honestly, this section of the book is somewhat tedious but it does show how Christine struggled to get placed on missions despite her exemplary and daring track record. Eventually, she wa
s sent to occupied France, where the story gets very interesting again. By all accounts, Christine had a magnetic personality, not just winning over many men as lovers, but also talking her way around the Gestapo and even charming their guard dogs. She was a fearless and courageous patriot, who seemed to thrive on danger and adventure.

Once the war was over, Christine’s treatment by the British was shameful. She struggled to get citizenship, even when being offered some of the highest service awards for her contribution to the war effort, and she never really found meaningful work that would make the most of her formidable talents. Her tragic death in 1952 came just as she was about to move from London back to Europe.

While I enjoyed parts of this book, and I think that Christine’s story is amazing and inspiring, those who would like to learn more about women’s roles in intelligence during WWII might find a more accessible read in Sarah Helm’s 2006 work A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. Helm is a journalist and seems better able than historians or biographers to cut through the detail to put a readable story together (her book is longer than Mulley’s but seemed shorter to me). Plus, the women and men whose stories are featured in Helm’s book are some of the same people you meet in Mulley’s. Just not Christine.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #16: Life After Life: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

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At over 500 pages, I expected to need the entirety of a week if not more to make it through this novel. It took me about 4 days, and would have taken less if family and work hadn’t interfered. It is truly a spellbinding novel about reincarnation, practice making perfect and going back to do it over until you get it right (if you can).

The story begins with Ursula Todd attempting to assassinate Hitler in 1930. She dies and returns to her birth in February 1911 at the family home in the English countryside. I didn’t keep count of how many times Ursula dies and reboots, but with each life/death cycle, she learns something to help her the next time around. She doesn’t exactly remember her past lives, but she experiences strong deja vu which impels her toward specific actions and away from certain dangers. Ursula’s life encompasses the two world wars and her choices in each life have implications for the lives of family and neighbors as well as herself. She transforms from a naive and somewhat dull witted Ursula to a sharp, focused and purpose-driven woman. A few of her lives were extraordinarily depressing and, now that I think of it, were lives in which she was married.

Among the constant members of her life circles are her parents and siblings, the maid and cook, her eccentric aunt Izzie and neighbors from her village. Despite the reincarnations, the family dynamics don’t really change. Father Hugh is a prosperous banker who fought in WWI, mother Sylvie married young and is still pained by the recollection of her own family’s losses, sister Pamela is a close friend while eldest brother Maurice is a pompous and aggressive lout, and younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy are loved, lovable and doted upon. Izzie’s circumstances change sometimes but her character does not. She is the free spirit who defies convention and annoys the rest of the family.

Another recurring character is Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist who treats Ursula when she is young. The reasons for this visit change depending on Ursula’s life — either she has engaged in an action that shocks her parents or she simply behaves strangely, showing signs of what the Irish maid calls a sixth sense. It is Kellet who introduces the concept of reincarnation to Ursula and seems to provide her with genuine help.

Atkinson’s writing is colorful and detailed, and despite the repetition of Ursula’s lives, never becomes boring or predictable. The description of life in London during the blitz is fascinating and terrifying. Ursula becomes involved in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) and is on the scene when buildings have been reduced to rubble and bodies are being recovered — a horrifying and dangerous business.

… a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula often found herself more moved by these small reminders of domestic life … than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms. 

I was completely engrossed by this novel. The idea of having a chance to “re do” and change history for the better is attractive. As Ursula tells Teddy, “We can never get it right, but we must try.”

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #15: The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova

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This youth lit novel’s topic is Norwegian resistance in World War II. The story is told from the point of view of Marit, a 10-year-old in 1940 when the Germans begin bombing Norway. Marit’s parents send her and her younger brother Lars to mom’s hometown to be cared for by relatives while mom and dad join the resistance. Aunt Ingeborg is a school teacher and Bestefar (grandfather) is a fisherman.

Marit’s relationship with her grandfather is strained. She feels that he has always preferred Lars and she is also angry that Bestefar seems to simply go along with the Nazis rather than resist like her parents. The author provides plenty of historical detail for young readers as the relationship between Marit and Bestefar develops. Readers will learn of the Nazis’ initial attempts to win over Norwegians as “fellow aryans”, and, failing at that, the use of intimidation and arrest to keep them in line. Norwegians had to give their blankets, food, even radios to the occupiers. Teachers and ministers were forced to teach Nazi propaganda. When they refused, churches closed and one out of every ten school teachers were rounded up and sent off to camps. Wearing traditional Norwegian garb was also construed as an act of resistance and subject to punishment.

The author presents great detail about Norway, its people, their resistance to the Nazis and the price they paid. The action takes place over several years and shows Marit maturing and taking bold action on behalf of the resistance and ultimately learning the truth about her grandfather. A decent novel for kids to learn a little about World War II and the resistance.

ElCicco #CBR 5 Review #14: Lore (The Dark Room) by Rachel Seiffert

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Originally published as The Dark Room in 2001, Lore is being re-published now in support of a film due out this year. The novel is divided into three chapters, each dealing with one German and his/her experience of WWII and the aftermath of the Holocaust. The overriding themes deal with German guilt and the appropriate German response to its past.

Chapter one focuses on Helmut, a Berliner in his 20s, unable to enlist in the military because of a physical disability. Helmut is embarrassed, frustrated and jealous when his peers ship off to war and he is still home with his parents. He keeps detailed journals about the trains and passenger populations passing through the nearby station, noticing the while people keep coming into the city, the population still seems to be diminishing. To keep busy, Helmut starts working as a photographer’s assistant and finds he has a talent for the art, but the ends to which he employs this talent and his enthusiasm for it are disturbing. Helmut himself is a strange character. In addition to his physical impairment, he seems to have some social and emotional problems as well. The reader may be shocked by some of the things he does, but at the same time, the description of life in a bombed out, shell-shocked Berlin might elicit some pity, too. Helmut is a troubling character.

Chapter two is about Lore (Hannelore), a 12-year-old girl who becomes responsible for her younger siblings when her Nazi parents are arrested by the allies at the end of the war. Lore doesn’t understand exactly what has happened to her parents or why, but she knows that she has to hide evidence of her family’s connections to the Reich. As she takes her siblings on foot on the long journey to her grandmother’s house, the reader sees the poverty, hunger and displacement visited upon the Germans after the war. The reader cannot help but feel pity for Lore and her siblings. Their hunger and exhaustion are tragic and more than children should have to bear, but for Lore, there is also the gradual realization that the world she thought she  knew is very different from reality.

Chapter three is Micha’s story in Germany in 1997-1998. Micha is 30, living with his German-Turkish girlfriend and working as a teacher. As a result of a lesson related to the Holocaust, he begins to investigate his own family’s history during the war. Micha knew that his grandfather (Opa) had served in the Waffen-SS, but he, like the rest of the family, never bothered to ask questions about where he served, what he did, or what happened to him while a POW in Russia. As Micha investigates, he upsets his entire family and his girlfriend, who see no point in pursuing the question. Their feeling is that Opa was a good man who loved them, and learning the truth would make no difference; Opa is dead, so the truth cannot be known. But Micha’s research becomes an obsession and he is compelled to carry on. As he gets closer to the answers, however, he seems to hold back from learning the truth and struggles with his own motivations in pursuing it.

While the focus of the novel is on Germans’ experiences, Jews and the Holocaust are the unspoken backdrop. They are not characters, but the fact of their existence colors the reading of each chapter. You feel bad for feeling any sort of pity for the Germans, but you also question whether you would be any different than they were. And I think that is what the author wants. Be uncomfortable. Recognize the humanity of the enemy and deal with your feelings of revulsion and pity. It is a provocative novel and I couldn’t put it down.