Monday, December 7, 2015

Only by Blood by Renate Krakauer

This book was a wonderful surprise!  I only heard about it because I met the author at a reception at the Vancouver Jewish Book Festival.  She gave me a synopsis and it sounded like my kind of book so I picked it up right away.  And I was not disappointed.  Krakauer writes clearly and compellingly and, though this is her first novel, her dialogue and descriptive passages are very well crafted.  Though in some way the style is similar, shifting perspectives and time periods in alternating chapters, there is no comparison to the last first novel I reviewed, Matrons and Madams.  Here I never lost track of who the characters were or what had happened in their lives.

The novel spans over sixty years.  It begins in Warsaw in 2005 with Mania who is caring for her aging mother Krystyna.  Mania was an only child who believed her father was killed in the war.  Her mother protected her from poverty in violence during the war and in the post-war communist era.  It then moves back in time to Roza, a woman who escapes a ghetto in Galicia with her infant daughter and leaves her for protection with another Polish woman, Irena.  The story moves back and forth between these two perspectives and when on her deathbed Krystyna asks Mania to "find them and make it right" we know that her search will somehow result in weaving the two stories together.  While I did guess fairly early on how that would happen, the book did not feel unduly predictable.

I was still enthralled by Mania's search for her mother's estranged sisters who she believes hold the key to "finding them".  I was also always interested in Roza and her husband and infant's struggle to survive during the war, immigration to Canada and desperate efforts to raise their daughter as a true Canadian, and while doing so completely shielding her from her traumatic past.  Many of the characters were very sympathetic as well.  Of course I could sympathize with Mania and Rosa, but I also loved their husbands, Witold and Marek, Krystyna's elderly uncle Feliks and Irena.  I felt less sympathy for Roza's daughter, Helen, who seemed somewhat ungrateful for her parents' sacrifices, but I suppose it was understandable given they never shared their stories with her.

While this was yet another Holocaust story, it was interesting to read about a lesser known ghetto and part of Poland (Galicia which was later given to Ukraine by the Soviets).  I obviously knew the suffering was widespread, but this was just a slightly different angle.  It also dealt with the suffering imposed on the Poles in this part of the world - I felt it was even handed in showing that suffering while also showing their complicity in the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

All in all, I really recommend this book - the author is to be commended for an impressive first novel.

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