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 familys farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfredwho 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 Annas and Callums love, as well as their friendship with Manfredassuming 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 centurys greatest tragedieswhile creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 35.
- Review Date: 2008-02-04
- Reviewer: Staff
In his 12th novel, Bohjalian (The Double Bind) paints the brutal landscape of Nazi Germany as German refugees struggle westward ahead of the advancing Russian army. Inspired by the unpublished diary of a Prussian woman who fled west in 1945, the novel exhumes the ruin of spirit, flesh and faith that accompanied thousands of such desperate journeys. Prussian aristocrat Rolf Emmerich and his two elder sons are sent into battle, while his wife flees with their other children and a Scottish POW who has been working on their estate. Before long, they meet up with Uri Singer, a Jewish escapee from an Auschwitz-bound train, who becomes the group's protector. In a parallel story line, hundreds of Jewish women shuffle west on a gruesome death march from a concentration camp. Bohjalian presents the difficulties confronting both sets of travelers with carefully researched detail and an unflinching eye, but he blinks when creating the Emmerichs, painting them as untainted by either their privileged status, their indoctrination by the Nazi Party or their adoration of Hitler. Although most of the characters lack complexity, Bohjalian's well-chosen descriptions capture the anguish of a tragic era and the dehumanizing desolation wrought by war. (May)
Resilience amid the horrors of war
In his latest novel, Skeletons at the Feast, Chris Bohjalian takes his readers to World War II-era Europe in a gripping tale told from various viewpoints. This is a departure forBohjalian, whose previous novels, including Midwives and The Double Bind, are largely set in bucolic New England, where the author himself resides.
Bohjalian was inspired to delve into the last days of the Third Reich after reading the real-life diary of Eva Henatsch, an East Prussian matriarch who recorded her family's trek West ahead of the Red Army in 1945. With this and other acknowledged sources serving as his background material, Bohjalian demonstrates an intricate historical knowledge and impressively illustrates the stark horrors of the time.
Bohjalian's mix of characters brings a human face to the historical depiction. Eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich exemplifies one of the newer victims of the war; until now, she and her upper-class family have lived in relative luxury on their Prussian estate, where the parlor wall boasts a signed, framed photograph of Adolf Hitler though the family had taken in a family of Jewish friends five years earlier). But now that the brutal Russian army has invaded, their reality has drastically changed, and as they make the harsh journey to reach the British and American lines, their former life (described in flashbacks) becomes a distant memory.
Also on the road with the Emmerichs is Callum Finnella, a Scottish prisoner of war who has been laboring on the family's estate. He and Anna are engaged in a furtive affair that Bohjalian describes in sometimes torrid detail. Also on the journey is German Corporal Manfredotherwise known as Uri Singer, a Jewish escapee from an Auschwitz-bound train in disguise. And then there is Cecile, a Frenchwoman on another trek: a death march from a concentration camp.
Skeletons at the Feast is a compelling read, with its mix of history, romance and portrayals of strength in the midst of severe adversity. War really is hell, the book says, but the human spirit is ultimately salvageable.
Rebecca Stropoli writes from Brooklyn, New York.