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.