Saturday, May 16, 2020

House on Endless Waters

Title:  House on Endless Waters
Author:  Emuna Elon
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1982130229 / 978-1982130220

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "One after another the people are swallowed up into the plane to Amsterdam, one after another after another."

Favorite Quote:  "In order to hand me over she had to detach herself from herself, and afterward she never managed to get back inside herself and continued, long after the war ended, living outside herself and observing her life without any emotion."

Yoel Blum is an author. He was born in Amsterdam but has lived most of his life in Israel. He has no memory of his birthplace except for the the fact that mother asked him never to return there. Yet, he returns. He is there to promote his books. With time on his hands, he visits a history museum and is shocked to see an image of his own mother in a video presentation. His mother is with two children - his sister and a little boy who is not Yoel.

So begins Yoel's journey to the past and the history of the Jewish community in Amsterdam during World War II. "Two thousand five hundred. According to the documents Yoel has studied, that was the number of Jewish children hidden by Christian families during the war. Two thousand five hundred Jewish children, most of them from Amsterdam. According to Dutch law only those children with a surviving parent were eventually returned, while according to reality only those children whose surviving parent managed to find where they had been hidden were returned. Many children therefore remained with the families that had hidden them. Many of the hidden children were complete unaware that they were not the biological offspring of the people who raised them, Many are unaware of it to this days."

This is the horrific history on which the books is based. To honor the history, I wanted to love the book. Unfortunately, for me, the way in which the story is told got in the way of the story itself. The book felt like it tried too hard and felt like a literary exercise more so than a story.

On the one hand, the history is spelled out clearly as above. This declaration comes not at the beginning of the book nor at the end. It is given as a historical fact in the middle of the book. I love historical fiction because it introduces me to history I might not otherwise have learned. Typically, though, facts such as this are what I find when I research the history the book is based on rather than in the book itself.

On the other hand, the book shifts repeatedly through Yoel's time in Amsterdam,  his work on his new book, his memories of life in Israel, and the story of his mother during the war.

The intensity of the threads varies as well. Yoel's present and his wanderings through his memories are the story of a man who must come to terms with the fact that his life may not be what he has always believed it to be. There is confusion and sorrow yet it feels at a distant as much time is spent on descriptions of what he sees and does. His story is the impact of the horrific wartime actions carried through to today. This story is entirely character driven.

The story of his mother is the story of this history. It is the story of a woman and the sacrifices she makes to save her family. This is the plot of this book, and the emotions shine through.

The shifts are at times abrupt and unclear. It makes the story challenging to follow. Yoel, the author, describes the writing style in the book itself. "Realistic writing - to describe things exactly as they look. Surrealistic writing - to describe things not the way they look but the way they actually are." Yet, the reality of this history is so poignant that I wish that is what came through fully with the literary accompaniment.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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