Sunday, March 16, 2014

Two Great Finds

It has been a while since I read two books in a row which I really enjoyed, but the following were both really good stories.  I read them very quickly because I was so intrigued by the plots.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
This is a first time novel by a Chicago trial attorney.  At times this shows in that the plot and dialogue are very straightforward and lacking in the symbolism weaved in by more experienced writers.  But this does not at all take away from the quality of the story.

The story centres on Ben, a Holocaust survivor in his 80s who believes that a prominent Chicago citizen, Elliot Rosenzweig, is in fact Otto Piatek, a Polish boy who was taken in by Ben's family as a child only to turn against them when he becomes a Nazi officer.  Ben publicly accuses Elliot and is initially charged though Elliot has the charges dropped, ostensibly because he feels sorry for the old man.  But Ben does not want to let the matter drop as he wants Otto to pay for what he did to his family.  So a private detective friend, Liam, introduces him to a young lawyer, Catherine, so she can represent Ben in a claim to recover property stolen by Otto during the war.

Catherine tries to get Ben to stick to the facts about what was stolen and how he is sure Elliot and Otto are one and the same but over time gets caught up in Ben's narrative about his childhood, his friendship with Otto, his wife Hannah and what happened to his family during the war.  Due to pressure from Elliot's lawyers to drop the claim, she is forced to leave her law firm and handle the case on her own.  And together Ben, Liam and Catherine work to prove their case.  The book switches from the present day to Ben's memories.  Both parts are fascinating and I was anxious to get to the end to see if the case could be proven and, if so, how.  I won't give away the ending as the book is worth the read to find out for yourself.

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
This book also deals with the lingering impact of war but a far different one.  A young man, whose name we never learn, moves from Ethiopia to Uganda in the 1970s to try to attend university in Kampala.  Instead he is slowly drawn into the African revolution by the only friend he makes, Isaac.  Isaac gives the protagonist a series of names, the professor, Langston, Ali and eventually his own name, Isaac.  The book alternates chapters between telling the story of the two young men in Africa and the fake Isaac's new life in the American midwest where a young woman, Helen, is assigned to be his social worker to integrate him into society but eventually falls in love with him despite knowing much of what he tells her is not the truth.

The story of how a poor, naive boy gets caught up in someone else's revolution is not unusual but it is written so well that I couldn't wait to see how he eventually became the Isaac in America on false pretences.  I also loved how we never actually learned his name - such a stark reminder of how you can lose your identity just when you have set out to find it.

Powerfully written without being at all preachy, this is a great story of the impact of colonialism and its aftermath.

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