Monday, October 29, 2012

Until the Dawn's Light by Aharon Appelfeld

This is the next book in my book club and the best we've read so far this year, though it was quite depressing.  The story is about Blanca, a very successful Jewish high school student in a small town in Austria in the early 1900s, who has plans of attending university and becoming a mathematician (a dream which her father was not able to fulfil for financial reasons and because he seems never quite able to lift himself out of his dreams and into action).  Her life takes a disastrous turn when she becomes infatuated with Adolf, a fellow high school student from a family of peasant labourers who is barely scraping by.  Blanca is asked to tutor Adolf and the two fall in love despite Adolf's blatant anti-semitic views.  So, she abandons her plans for university, converts to Christianity and marries Adolf.

One interesting aspect of the book is her parents' reaction - assimilated Jews themselves they readily accept her conversion (though are less happy about her abandoning school).  Only her grandmother, Carole, who is clearly the town eccentric, opposes the conversion and cuts Blanca out of her life.  Carole, however, is a lone wolf - she spends every day on the steps of the shuttered synagogue mourning the loss of Judaism as more and more of the young people convert.

From the beginning Blanca's marriage is a disaster - Adolf is physically and mentally abusive and spews anti-semitic vitriol at every opportunity.  Blanca's mother dies and he barely lets her grieve let alone support her father who falls slowly into madness when he loses the love of his life and the sole supporter of his dreams (not to mention his house as his debts catch up with him).  Instead Adolf forces her to put her father in an old age home (though he is in his fifties).  There Blanca witnesses many elderly Jewish people who have been abandoned by their now Christian children.  But she does befriend the cook, Theresa, who is also a victim of spousal abuse and encourages her to get a job at a better nursing home in a nearby town.  Eventually, after giving birth to Otto, Blanca decides she has no choice but to do so.  However, working hard, for a tyrannical nursing home manager, and leaving her infant to the care of a peasant woman who neglects him though does meet Adolf's "needs", as well as the disappearance of her father, causes Blanca to eventually sink into depression with terrible consequences.  Theresa, as well as a kind old Jewish doctor, try desperately to help her but to no avail.

She takes surprising actions as she sinks to Adolf's level (which I won't reveal in case you read the book) and grabs Otto and runs.  The book actually starts with Blanca on the run as she writes her memoirs for Otto's benefit.  The earlier action is seen by way of flashback.  The book comes to a sad but perhaps inevitable end for someone with so much promise who is beaten down (both literally and figuratively).  This book is a really interesting psychological study of the effects of abuse and quite different than what I was expecting from reading the description of a Jew converting to Christianity and then living on the run.  I was sure this was a more typical pogrom or Holocaust tale and was very pleasantly surprised by the different turn it took.  Not uplifting, but a great read.

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