In Berlin, in the aftermath of World War II, three disparate lives come together.
In keeping with its title, this second novel from Raeff (Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia, 2002, etc.) delivers its story of haunting events and slow-burning passions with cool detachment. (It also reunites readers with some characters encountered in Raeff’s story collection, The Jungle Around Us, 2015.) Bracketed within a contemporary narrative thread set in the oppressive heat of Morocco, where Isaac goes to visit Ulli, now a hotelier in Meknes whom he hasn’t seen for 40 years, is a long sequence of flashbacks, beginning with Ulli, a teenager in Germany in 1937, embarking on her first love affair. Leo and Isaac meet as soldiers in Arizona, both medically unfit to fight: Leo has a faulty heart valve; Isaac is asthmatic. The trio comes together in a bar in postwar Berlin in 1945, and so an emotional triangle is formed, with Leo and Ulli as its lovers and Isaac the dependable friend. Enduring loyalties are forged between all three, but the relationships shift over time: Ulli loves and marries Leo but isn’t happy; Leo has kept secrets from Ulli which will eventually force them apart. Their children, Simone and Juliet, must accommodate parents whose emotional trajectories create ever larger distances, while Isaac’s role is to step into the caring void left by the other two. All this history is slowly unpeeled between scenes in Morocco where Isaac and Ulli try to bridge what has separated them.
There’s elegance, insight, tenderness, and craft aplenty in this pensive, melancholy story, but its insistent restraint and distance bleach away intimacy; it’s as if readers are viewing the characters through the wrong end of a telescope.