My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Hannah Mai and her two daughters, Minna and Malka, live in Lawoczne in Poland. It’s 1943, life for Jews is becoming precarious and so Hannah takes the difficult decision to leave their home and escape over the mountains to the refuge of Hungary. On the journey, Malka, the youngest daughter, becomes separated from the others and it’s from that point that the book splits into two separate narratives – the story of Malka, and the story of her mother and Minna.
Written originally in German and translated into English by Brian Murdoch,this is a book full of broken glass. It’s written in a very precise manner that tends to avoid the great elaborate metaphor, but in doing so creates a story that is painfully acute. There are many many moments which are intensely moving but one in particular struck me. It is when two characters are picking a berry from a bush and one shares it with the other. I’ll edit the names out in this quote so it’s spoiler free:
“He opened his mouth without taking his eyes off her, and she put in the berry. [She] looked so strange, so different, as if she had no connection with the child she had once been. Embarrassed, [Different Character] turned away. She felt as if she’d been watching something that was nothing to do with her.”
If there is a more subtle, beautiful way to describe that moment when you fall in love with somebody, I am yet to read it.
This is a story of survival and of love, and of the way your stomach turns in on itself after weeks of hunger.
What I will acknowledge is that this isn’t going to be a book for everyone. The ending’s not quite what I expected. There are long periods where ‘nothing’ overt happens. There’s a lot of quietness which I appreciate is ironic in a wartime book but that’s the best way to describe it.
But I think, in a way, that’s what makes it great as well. This is a book where we see the best and worst of people, and we see it in a peculiarly graceful manner. The way it’s almost underwritten at points forces the reader to absorb some of the tension Malka and her family are feeling. You reach out, pulling cues in from the wider story, to understand how you should read these pages – and it’s unbearable because you start picking up on the clues, the surroundings, and become as closely embroiled in it as the protagonists are.
Malka left me breathless at the end of it. I am impressed at Pressler’s skill, and the afterword (which I urge you to read *after* you’ve read the book) left me in tears. This is a very graceful, painful and important book.