British newcomer Granville pits storytelling against the Holocaust in a pair of alternating narratives whose connection is obvious from the start.
When Dr. Josef Breuer’s description of the young woman found nearly dead on the grounds of an abandoned Viennese mental hospital includes mention of a shaved head and “a line of inked characters” on her left arm, we know that she is somehow a concentration camp survivor, even though the year is 1899. Lilie, as Josef calls her, has “come to find the monster”—and we know who that is, even before she asks Josef to take her to Linz because “the monster will be too big by the time he comes to Vienna.” It’s also clear in the narration of an unpleasant girl named Krysta that we have moved into the Third Reich years. Krysta lives on the outskirts of a camp where her Papa performs medical experiments on the inmates; it’s about as plausible that she would strike up a friendship with one of these “animal-people,” a boy named Daniel, as it is that she would suddenly be placed in the camp herself after her guilt-stricken father’s death. Readers are basically waiting to find out how someone from the 1940s appeared in fin de siècle Vienna, and those who paid attention to the novel’s prologue will figure it out long before the author’s explanation in the last five pages. Granville creates an appropriately dark atmosphere, from Josef’s distasteful attraction to the vulnerable Lilie to the gruesome fairy tales Krysta heard from their housekeeper, Greet, before she and Papa came to the “infirmary.” The author aspires to assert the power of imagination to help people cope with dire circumstances, but her setup is so blatant, her characters so predetermined, that her use of the Holocaust seems like a gimmick rather than a genuine effort to deepen our understanding.
Dealing in fiction with a subject of such moral and physical enormity requires a level of rigor and care not achieved in this overly pat novel.