Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Every so often, I seem to get on a specific reading spree on a topic not exactly of my choosing – that is, the books seem to serendipitously line up on their own. The latest batch of they-chose-me-titles have been set during the final brutal months of World War II on the European continent, with an emphasis on the not-so-well-known experiences of the women.
Yesterday’s post, Elizabeth Wein’s wrenching Rose Under Fire captured the horrific tragedies of the women-only concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Today’s Skeletons is a three-part narrative, in which one-third is comprised of the lives (and heinous deaths) of the prisoners of an unnamed (not unlike Ravensbrück) women-only camp. Coming up: The Light in the Ruins – another Chris Bohjalian novel, his latest – highlights the Italian end-of-war story, which also receives pagetime in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (interesting overlap of titles, too, no?).
But back to the triangulated Skeletons … Binding all three narratives together is Anna Emmerich, half of just-turned-18-year-old twins and the only daughter of a Prussian aristocratic family. In German-occupied Poland in January 1945, war is drawing to a frenetic close amidst changing borders and desperate military maneuvers, prompting a mass exodus of surviving civilians in hopes of escaping the final onslaught of Russian soldiers and reaching safety somewhere west with the incoming Allied Forces.
While the Emmerich men have been conscripted by the Nazis, Anna, her mother, and her younger brother are accompanied by a Scottish prisoner-of-war who is also Anna’s lover. Their arduous journey will overlap with that of Uri Singer, a German Jew who has lost everything but his own life, who has thus far survived by literally donning the enemy’s clothing. Paralleling these flights are a group of Jewish women prisoners on a death march away from their camp, the only remaining of thousands who must not be allowed to tell the world the truth of what they have witnessed and endured.
While Bohjalian is the consummate storyteller, his most exceptional talent is his uncertainty – that is, rigid definitions of right and wrong prove impossible, and good and evil could change places minute-to-minute. Humanity cannot be defined by unyielding rules, and yet – as Bohjalian hauntingly shows from both ‘sides’ – inhumanity has an intractable bottom line.
Tidbit: If you choose to go audible, Mark Bramhall once again proves an excellent choice, smoothly embodying not just ages, accents, and both genders, but convincingly distinguishing degrees of desperation and decay. The single drawback to listening is that no one will read you the ending “Acknowledgments” in which Bohjalian describes the novel’s genesis (a close friend’s East Prussian grandmother’s diary!). Lucky for you aural junkies, Bohjalian’s got you covered: his “Backstory” appears on his extensive website.