Reviewed by Sue Bond
By Suzanne Leal
Allen & Unwin
March 2020, ISBN 9781760875275, 278 pages
There are great numbers of novels that take the Holocaust as their central topic or theme, including the very well known Schindler’s Ark (1982) by Thomas Keneally, Jacob Rosenberg’s exquisite East of Time (2005) and Sunrise West (2007), Bram Presser’s award-winning The Book of Dirt (2017), and Leah Kaminsky’s The Hollow Bones (2019). There is also, of course, a large body of non-fiction literature, including notable memoirs such as Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1952 in English), Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960 in English), and Art Spigelman’s Maus (1980).
Suzanne Leal, an Australian novelist and lawyer, has contributed a powerful novel to this large body of Holocaust literature. It is based on a true story she learned from her former Czech, Jewish landlords, who were also Holocaust survivors. The strength of the story lies in her characters, particularly Hana Lederová. She has a clear and distinctive voice, and we learn of her experiences directly from her, in contrast to Karel Kruta who is described by an omniscient narrator. The other main characters, also written in the third person and who receive alternate chapters, are Tessa, Karel’s granddaughter, and Ruth, a minister of religion.
The book begins in 2010 in England, where Hana, now 88 years old, has lived for many decades with her husband Robert, recently deceased. The first part of the novel introduces us to her family background in then Czechoslovakia and experiences during the Second World War. She is transported to Theresienstadt in July 1943, where she is noticed by one of the guards, or gendarmes, called Karel; her parents are transported ‘east’ to their deaths, but she doesn’t know that at the time. We get to know both Hana and Karel as old persons, looking back to their pasts and how they ‘met’, an effective use of time to add depth and colour to the characters and their stories. Hana’s mother had advised her to do whatever it took to survive and this proves good advice, though not without its repurcussions. A ‘relationship’ develops between Hana and Karel that proves useful to them both for very different reasons, until she eventually is transported to Auschwitz, something that Karel cannot stop, despite all she has allowed him to have of her.
What transpires is a harrowing series of memories from Hana, told in her steady and deliberate voice, that is without gratituous depictions of horror but rather just enough description of the sufferings of all the women with whom she is imprisoned to bind the reader to her and her friends. They are driven on a death march, eventually arriving in Bergen-Belsen, where typhus and deprivation kills so many. But from the first chapter of this novel we know that Hana survives, and we know that Karel survives. But they live different lives after surviving the tragedy of the Holocaust, and just how different those lives are the reader discovers as the novel unfolds. I won’t reveal anymore.
The chapters featuring Karel’s granddaughter provide what could have been jarring juxtapositions but which in fact show an interesting parallel between the exploitative sexual relationships in which Hana and Tessa are involved. Tessa’s affair with her married boss at a legal firm show her spellbound by his sexual charisma, despite the fact that she must be available to him whenever he decrees but he is not available to her in the same way. Hana’s relationship with Karel is not the same, for obvious reasons, but she is both beholden to him for what she hopes is her safety and better food—for her survival—and also has some sexual power to expend, while he is sexually besotted by her but equally aware of his power over her.
Ruth, the Reverend Ruth Martin, has a role in this novel as the person to whom secrets are given. Her father, also a minister of religion, is now in a nursing home with Parkinson’s disease, and the scenes where she visits him are sensitively drawn. There is a carer called Amir with whom she slowly develops some type of friendship and understanding. He is perceptive and wise, bordering perhaps on a stereotype of the wise outsider who provides sustenance to the person who normally provides it to others, but he is a sympathetic and attractive character. And his experiences in Iran, his home country, are apposite to the experiences of the main characters, where conflict and violent death rob people of what matters to them most.
Hana, Karel, Tess, and Ruth are all drawn together at the end of the novel and, as suggested in Part I, there is a secret that Karel’s wife, Irena, kept from all except her husband until the end of her life. What Karel and Hana decide to do with this knowledge is a profound and excrutiating problem, handled with psychological acuity and good writing by the author.
There are two points I especially want to mention. One is that Leal describes Hana as unable to fully mourn her parents because, even at her great age, there is still a part of her that is waiting for them to return from wherever they were sent in the ‘east’. This is a keenly perceived phenomenon that is one of the features of Hana’s character that makes her so palpably real. The other point is made by Hana when her then employer (and future husband) Robert gives her a parcel of music books of Bach, Schumann and Beethoven. He apologises because they are all German, and worries it was an inappropriate choice given her experiences. Her reply is wonderful:
For a moment I was uncomprehending. Then I was all comprehending.
‘The SS took very much,’ I said, my English still wanting then, ‘but I don’t let them take my music away, too.’
So, I took the books and I learned the pieces and I played them loudly and I played them with vigour. I snatched those Germans back and once more I made them mine.
Endings in novels are difficult to construct and I am often disappointed, but Leal has brought this novel to a satisfying close, with enough uncertainty, enough unsaid, to make it entirely credible. Which doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with the choices made by the characters, but I understand why they made them. She manages to show us the vagaries and complexities of human behaviour yet endow her characters with heart and selflessness as well. This is an impressive work of fiction.
Sue Bond is a reader, writer, academic proofreader, editor, and book reviewer with degrees in medicine and literature, and a doctorate in adoptee life writing. She occasionally blogs at https://thewordygecko.home.blog/.