It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.
While I may not have read the traditional romance novels as expected of our theme, I did manage to devour quite a few literary novels where the contours of love have been highlighted. I paired these two novels (both of which I borrowed from the library) because they leave that lingering taste of melancholia and mournfulness in the reader’s mouth. Both are lovely stories that are not easily forgotten.
Written by: Jessica Shattuck
Published by: HarperLuxe (2017)
ISBN: 006264419X (ISBN13: 9780062644190). Literary Award: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2017). Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
This book was not in my reading radar until #LitsyBuddyReads announced that it will be the book of the month for February (see my post on online reading communities). I wanted to join in the virtual discussion, so I immediately borrowed it from our library.
The story shows the aftermath of World War II after Germany’s defeat – from the lenses of the wives of influential men who were part of the resistance and were subsequently assassinated by Hitler’s soldiers. I felt that it was a refreshing take on a seemingly-overwrought topic, providing some semblance of meaning as to how people could have been complicit to atrocities beyond one’s imaginings. As one of the main protagonists, Marianne von Lingenfels noted:
For all the horror of the official reports she and Albrecht had seen, with their language of “extermination” and “elimination,” they could not come close to conjuring this. How could they? There was no point of reference. (p. 141)
Essentially, Marianne took it upon herself to search for the wives of the fallen men who had been part of the uprising and to take care of them, as her childhood friend, Connie asked of her before everything went crazy. I used Typorama for all the quotes included here:
Marianne took those words seriously. While her husband in the story was her former university professor, Albrecht, of distinguished lineage (hence the castle) and one with a more measured moral certitude (unlike Connie’s seemingly brash and reckless, albeit well intentioned bravado) – I felt that it was truly Connie that Marianne loved. However, Connie married someone perceived to be below his stature, a very simple woman named Benita, but an exquisite creature born to be loved and adored by men.
Marianne took it upon herself to find Connie’s family: Benita and their son, Martin, after the war, to honour the promise that she has made to her bestfriend-cum-true-great-love. Marianne also found another widow of the resistance named Ania Grabarek and her two sons, through the help of American soldiers. Thus, their makeshift family of sorts was borne inside Burg Lingenfels in 1945.
In the future, Martin will recall this night as the first time – and one of the only times – he ever saw Germans crying in public, not at the news of a dead loved one or at the sight of their bombed home, and not in physical pain, but from spontaneous emotion. For this brief time, they were not hiding from one another, wearing their masks of cold and practical detachment. The music stirred the hardened sediment of their memory, chafed against layers of horror and shame, and offered a rare solace in their shared anger, grief, and guilt.
While a lot has been written about the war as it was happening, it is different seeing an image of fallen Germany, at the wake of one of the most horrible periods in history: the guilt of the vanquished conqueror (and its unwilling participants), dealing with the anger expressed vociferously by the rest of the world, the sense of paranoia as people tried to discern each other’s role during the War and what it meant to their relationships now that it was over.
There was also the question of what it means to “move on” exactly from this? How does one, precisely, live with this kind of horror and shame and guilt? Having visited Germany several times now, I must say that I admire the Germans’ pragmatism, practicality, a certain type of stoicism that carries with it a weight of emotion not paraded in one’s face for other people’s consumption. This quote from the book also captures that feeling of finding one’s footing at the wake of the war, and everything it revealed about people’s nature:
Ania also reflected on what made them go on during the war for as long as they did, despite the whispered information about what was truly happening to the Jews:
I thought that this was particularly instructive, given what is happening to the world right now – and how atrocities still happen, despite the fact that we should technically know better.
However, since our reading theme is on love, allow me to dwell just a tiny bit on Connie’s love affair with Benita. Connie was good looking, and with the self-assuredness and the certitude of everything that goes along with it, on top of his family’s influence and wealth. He could have any woman he wanted, but he chose Benita, a beautiful woman from a very poor family, who was as vain as he was.
Among all the women in the castle, I find myself not being as drawn to Benita, compared to the do-gooder Marianne and the sturdy and ever-dependable Ania. I found Benita to be self-absorbed, entitled (by virtue of her beauty which she did not earn but was born with), and quite simple-minded. Even her subsequent affair with the ax-man, Franz Muller, is a testament to her capacity to follow only her urges and her imperative to satisfy her impulses, instead of thinking through them, and truly seeing another for their pain and what that signifies. Yet it was her husband Connie’s letter, which she did not open for the longest time, which unraveled her finally. Here is an abstract from that beautiful hand-written letter:
This is a book wrapped in well-guarded secrets, marked by the tenacity to keep on living despite (or maybe because of) shared grief, and women’s unremitting capacity to overcome.
Written by: Eowyn Ivey
Published by: Headline Review (2012)
ISBN: 0755380541 (ISBN13: 9780755380541). Literary Awards: Pulitzer Prize Nominee for Fiction (2013), Indies Choice Book Award for Adult Debut (2013), Tähtifantasia Award Nominee (2014), The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Nominee (2012), Specsavers National Book Award for International Author of the Year (2012), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Historical Fiction (2012). Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
I borrowed this book from the library after seeing Kate DiCamillo feature it in her FB page with the highest recommendation. Since my husband has been thoroughly absorbed with the TV Documentary on Alaska by the Discovery Channel, I thought that I might as well explore the city through this novel, at least as seen from the perspective of homesteaders in the 1920s.
In this story, the sense of place feels almost like a character. There is such a rich and textured description of Alaska that I can almost feel the frost and chill and bone-deep cold:
There is that raw and elemental quality to the narrative that spoke to me. I also see how others could perceive the story to be too slow and meandering for their taste, but I personally found the pace to be just right. I also appreciated the alternating view points such that the reader gets the privilege to be inside both Jack’s and Mabel’s head. Here is an example of how Jack regards their new home:
This old couple fits into the Russian fairy tale, Snegurochka, perfectly. Childless and carrying the burden of bereavement, Jack and Mabel had originally moved to Alaska with the intention of getting away from it all: the multiple miscarriages, the well-meaning hovering of family members, the sight and sound of growing children a testament to their own grief that will never go away. See Mabel’s pain below:
And Jack’s own unarticulated but keenly felt despair:
Instead of unremitting quiet, however, they found free-spirited neighbours who touched their melancholia but never made a big deal out of it. It was simply taken as a matter of fact. Then there was the Snow Child, Faina, whom they seem to have made miraculously from red scarves and glittering snow: a living vessel for their outpouring of love, longing and make-believe. Mabel, for one, seems to be ready for this:
I like how mystical Faina’s presence seems to be – yet also perfectly plausible. It was one of those things that remain at the periphery of reality, the edge of existence; traversing the boundaries of the immaterial and the rootedness of flesh, sinew, and bone. As Ada, Mabel’s sister, noted in one of her letters:
Even Jack who is the more pragmatic of the two, was especially taken by Faina and her seeming-ethereal quality:
There are, indeed, various contours of love in this story, especially so when Faina grew up as an adolescent, and fell in love. There is a wildness and simplicity to it – and it comes with a cost, as all things dear and valuable, and in the end, there is the inevitable crossroad – and one will have to make a decision as to what truly matters.
I found this to be a beautiful and lyrical read that reminded me of the power of magic and fairy tales. It is also a celebration of a love that has aged and matured over the years, made all the more powerful with time and misfortune.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: Germany (The Women In The Castle) and United States of America (The Snow Child)