Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast
Chris Bohjalian
4 / 5

Published 2008

First Sentence
"The girl--a young woman, really, eighteen, hair the color of corn silk--had been hearing the murmur of artillery fire for two days now."
Publisher's Description:
In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from Warsaw to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.

Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family’s farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred–who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.

As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna’s and Callum’s love, as well as their friendship with Manfred–assuming any of them even survive. 

Perhaps not since The English Patient has a novel so deftly captured both the power and poignancy of romance and the terror and tragedy of war. Skillfully portraying the flesh and blood of history, Chris Bohjalian has crafted a rich tapestry that puts a face on one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies–while creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.
Dear Reader,

Yet again, this was an audiobook I stumbled across on my library's Overdrive site.  I had read some Chris Bohjalian before (and enjoyed it - Trans-Sister Radio - he's so good at making you think, and look at issues from all sides), and my sister is a big fan of his as well, so given the description, I figured I'd give this one a shot.  I was surprised to read on Goodreads that many people were shocked and disgusted by the graphic nature of this novel, but I did not find it to be sensational - just very real.  Granted, I don't know what actually went on during WWII, as I was lucky enough not to witness it, but from the accounts which I've heard before, the atrocities which Bohjalian describes are truly disturbing but not unrealistic.  He didn't want to shock people, just tell the story.

The book begins by following several different people in various wartime situations: Cecile, who is a concentration camp prisoner; Callum, who is a Scottish POW in Germany; Anna, a young German girl who grew up on a beet farm which belonged at different times to Germany and to Poland; and Uri, who is a Jewish German who escaped the trains and lives his life on the run, taking on various personas (Nazi soldier, Russian soldier, or simply melting out of sight) as need be, in order to survive.

I found it fascinating to read WWII from the German-citizen side, which is something you don't hear a lot about.  The reader got to watch the Germans start off as strong Hitler supporters (the dictator brought Anna's farm, which had been part of the annexation of Poland, back into Germany, and thus was a hero to many citizens in the east), and then as they began to recognize what was going on.  There were definitely atrocities on both sides of the war, too many to count - and there were good people who had morals no matter what, and bad people who took advantage of their power.  The book explored all sides of the war and of its effects on the people - it was particularly interesting to hear about the long march west that many German citizens made, as they fled from the invading Russians in the last few months of the war.  Their journeys were perilous: most suffered awfully, many died.  This was another aspect of the war I'd not encountered much of before now, so it was good to read about and get yet another perspective on the awful, worldwide conflict.

One of the parts that stuck out for me was when the Emmerich family stopped at a family friend's house during their difficult trek east.  They came across women who were certain they were safe from harm, and who lived in an insulated little bubble that had thus far managed to escape the war entirely.  I found that part to be touching and terrifying at once.  Those poor, proud women - to think what must have happened to them once the Emmerichs left and the Russians arrived.

I am glad I read this, and I would recommend it, despite that there were some parts that made me gasp in horror as I listened to the narrator read them.  Oh, and one last thing I think I should add: this is the narrator who read one of my favorite books from 2013, The Orchardist.  I think he is a wonderful reader, and having him "come back" for this book might have made me enjoy it even more than I would have otherwise.  I think perhaps he can make any book sound very well-written, even more than they already are!

Happy reading,

P.S. I had read before but forgotten that this was a work of fiction but based on real diaries kept from the war.  Wow.
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