In this searingly lyrical work, a young child bears witness to her family’s past.
“Grandmother signals with her hand, she wants me to follow.” So begins this remarkable book about the experiences of a Slovenian family in the 20th century. The narrator, a young girl at the novel’s beginning, is about to be shown her grandmother’s kitchen. But her grandmother might as well be leading her into memory, for it’s primarily the past to which she’s being introduced. Haderlap, an award-winning poet and writer, has based this novel on her own family’s experiences during the second world war. Her grandmother survived a concentration camp. Her father, still a child, was tortured by German police officers; by age 12, he’d gone off to fight with the partisans. Their neighbors in this small village just barely across the Austrian border fared similarly. It is a community of hardship and suffering. Haderlap’s narrator listens, horrified and rapt, to her father’s and grandmother’s stories. When neighbors discuss their own experiences, she stands “near the door left ajar and listen[s].” As she herself says, “The child understands that it’s the past she must reckon with.” For the past is not static and distant. Instead, “that time reaches out to grab me,” as sinuous and supple as any living thing. By now, decades have passed since the end of the war, but in this family, in this community, every detail, no matter how small, points back to that time, as the arrows in a compass point north. One night, the narrator observes her father smoking outside their house with a few other men. “Stanko is telling them that whenever he sees a cigarette glimmer in the dark, a firefly flutter past, or even someone strike a match, it’s always a shock for him, because it reminds him of the partisans who smoked in the dark.” Haderlap excels when, like here, she allows her characters to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories. But her book falters in more self-indulgent passages when she seems to lose herself in her own thoughts. Her mother is conspicuously absent from most of the book, and her own evolution as a thinker and writer could have used more patient description. Still, Haderlap’s is a significant achievement, hopefully a herald of more to come.
An arresting evocation of memory, community, and suffering.