In German writer Uhly's sprawling tale of Nazism and its toxic effects on Europe and beyond, Jewish survivors and German tormentors alike struggle for identity and a sense of place.
The book begins its march through inglorious history when Margarita, a young and pregnant Polish Jewish woman, shoots and kills an SS officer. She finds a safe haven in the cellar of a German couple's farmhouse, where she has the baby. After she dies, the woman who took her in is left to raise the child as her granddaughter. The slain SS officer's superior, Ranzner, meanwhile, responds by having 37 Poles killed—one for every year of the victim's life. He also acts out his twisted sense of superiority by raping Anna, a young Jewish woman, and controlling her as his sex slave. His obsession with the shrewd, unattainable Anna will last the rest of his life, even after he changes his name, marries, and has a family. As for Anna, who becomes pregnant, she marries Peretz, a Palestinian Jew who works for a Jewish organization for escapees. Anna and Peretz settle in the newly recognized state of Israel as refugees, with all the fear and doubt that entails. As compelling as the stories are, the book is lifted highest by the profound questions they raise about essence and existence, survival and the endless sense of displacement that mocks that state of being. There is no coming to terms with the past—no slate-cleaning new life for Anna and no moral cleansing for Ranzner. These nearly 600 pages are sometimes slow going. But the book's considerable rewards, including shifts between stark realism and eerie fabulism and characters whose secrets have secrets, more than make up for that.
Uhly's frequently fascinating epic revisits the Holocaust and its aftermath not through concentration camp narratives but through the stories of survivors desperately trying to make sense of the "real" world.