I was born in 1946, in the U.S. My family is not Jewish. I grew up, though, with the images from World War II, particularly the horrors of concentration camps. I have read books and magazines and seen films about this subject and in my dreams I often see the crowded trains and I think about how they ate, how they defecated, what they were thinking. I see in my mind the lines of the newly-arrived prisoners, being sorted; I see the piles of clothing of those sent to the "showers", the shoes, the jewels. I see the families separated, those surviving wondering if they will ever see the others again.
So even though I had no personal connection to these horrors they still live in my heart. Yet it was only after I was well into this book that I started to see the world perhaps as Sol sees it, or as Nathan sees it.
Sol and Nathan are the two lead characters. Sol is elderly, former owner of a shoe factory, and Nathan is his younger son, in his forties, pursuing at last a medical career. Sol's wife is dead. Sol was young when he was sent to the camps, and he managed to be sent to a barracks with his brother Chaim. He heard of others in his family from time to time but never saw any of them again.
Sol and his wife moved to New York after being liberated from the concentration camp, and their greatest wish was that their children never really know what they went through. So this dark ugly past was never discussed, yet the two boys had to feel it, wonder about it.
The story is about the death of Nathan's older brother Daniel, and Nathan's efforts to find out what happened. But the real story is about Nathan's tenuous hold on his own life, and his relationship with his increasingly bitter father. Intertwined through the story is always the background: what Sol lived through and could never forget.
Initially I was a little confused, in the first several pages, trying to sort out who was who and what was going on. I soon caught on, though, and was stuck instead in a kind of molasses-like sludge of misunderstandings, memories, wrong moves, recriminations, regrets. I am not a fan of "happy books", although at times I enjoy them. I love a book full of psychological issues, frankly, often including unhappy people searching, or flawed characters committing thoughtless acts. Yet this one really did bog me down at times. I became irritated at Sol and Nathan both, wondering when they were going to get past their own delusions and start seeing clearly. I kept reading though, and there were moments that jumped out at me, that told me in essence why I kept reading and what the book was about.
Intense is how I would describe Peter Carey's writing, from the books of his I have read. It certainly describes this one.
Told alternately from the point of view of the boy Che and from the caretaker Anna, this story is set in the 1970s, occasionally harking back to the 1960s for background. Anna is about to begin a career as a professor at Vassar when she is called back to a former life by an accidental connection. A radical member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), she was always malleable and in thrall to the leaders of that movement. Now she is older and stronger yet the pull is still there and is why she agrees to pick up the seven-year-old boy for a visit with his outlaw mother.
The boy is not told much. He has to go on instinct and expectation. When he first sees Anna step out of the elevator he is sure she is his mother. His mother, whom he last saw at age two. He has managed to build an imaginative world about his parents, aided by a babysitter who reads the papers and has radical ideas himself. So he is happy to say good bye to his grandmother and take off with this hippie-like woman.
Through a series of planned and unplanned events, Anna and Che find themselves sought by the law, and Anna makes decisions she later regrets. The two of them ultimately find themselves in the deep outback of Australia, about as remote from the New York world they knew as possible. And initially this is just fine with Anna.
Che - also known as Jay - is not thrilled to be dragged along to live an "alternative" lifestyle. He just wants to stay in a motel now and then. The two get to know different members of the commune they somewhat accidentally enter and try to get by. It isn't an easy or happy existence, although it sometimes has its rewards.
Each day and each act was, for me, intense. I never knew what was coming or if all would come out all right for any of the people involved. This is one thing I have learned about Carey - you really don't know how it will end. There were moments that made my stomach hurt.
I was drawn to it all, though, almost like to an accident but more personally caught up. I became attached to these characters, especially to the little boy. There are so many moments that felt real to me, accurate and deep. It isn't easy to portray the thoughts of a young boy when you are a middle-aged man, but somehow Carey seems to do it beautifully and believably. I surprised myself by how much I liked the ending.
This is not a book for everyone. If you want light and easy, go somewhere else. If you want more this may be for you. I think it will stick with me for a long time.