This is an intense story spanning three years of life in the Warsaw ghetto from 1940-1943. The story is told from both Ala’s point of view and her uncle Max’s, chapters alternating between both characters. Ala is a 19 year old aspiring ballerina who has up until the invasion of Poland by the German army lived a mainly privileged life in a wealthy Jewish family. Max, her uncle, converted to Catholicism in his youth, mainly to spite his father and continues to pine for a woman who he courted years before during his time in college. Their entire family ends up being forced into the Warsaw ghetto, witnessing the horrors of the Nazis first hand from the first days of the ghetto to the last days of the uprising.
The prose is somewhat bloated at times, leading to some frustration while reading as it can sound stilted rather than poetic, but it’s not so much of an issue as the book advances. I found the first few chapters a little tough to get into but it does get better after a while.
The story itself is well researched and written however the constant sexual references that appear all over the place, for no specific reason, ruined the story for me. Yes, Ala is at an age where she is discovering her sexuality, and feels trapped in the ghetto and in her life, but many of the references read like a male fantasy rather than actual teenage/young adult thoughts/actions. I found these references distracted from the story itself which conveys the time, the plot, the fear, and the uncertainties very well. It’s painfully obvious from most of the scenes depicted that the author is a male writing about female sexuality, and I found myself rolling my eyes every time Ala’s nakedness or fantasies or Sabina’s body and sudden interest in Max’s penis were mentioned. I would have found this book to be a good read without any of those scenes, and in my opinion they are unnecessary, and actually diminished the importance and intensity of the story for me. They really feel like you are entering into some guy’s wet dream amidst death and tragedy. I had the same issues years ago while reading Leon Uris’ novel Mila 18, and this novel feels kind of like a rehash of the same.
For those interested in learning more about the Warsaw Uprising I suggest reading some memoirs or non-fiction. I read this book until the end because I wanted to see some kind of closure on the characters, but the last few pages really hammered home the author’s misogyny that runs through the book. I don’t want to add spoilers, but there was really no need for the last page of the main story (before the post script). It just made me feel sick.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy of this novel.