THE VISIT by T. Degens


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Degens returns to Germany, the setting for her first and best novel, Transport 741-R, for this less powerful two-generation story featuring contemporary Kate, her dashing and popular Aunt Sylvia, and Sylvia's younger sister, also Kate, who died mysteriously in 1943. The story begins with a double shocker: The opening line, ""'Hitler did a lot of wonderful things,' says my Aunt Sylvia,"" is followed by niece Kate's murderous fantasy about Sylvia, who's back from California on her annual visit. Kate, who formerly loved her aunt, has got hold of the other Kate's 1943 diary, and has since turned into a sullen and rebellious teenager with falling school grades and a special hostility toward Sylvia. The rest of the story alternates, chapter-by-chapter, between this contemporary situation and the 1943 events revealed in Aunt Kate's diary. These take place at a summer camp where Sylvia, popular and charismatic even then, maneuvers herself into a position of power and in the process demonstrates a callous disregard for her admiring younger sister--or indeed for anything but her own glory and advancement. With Sylvia the major villain of the piece, historic conditions are well in the background; except for the obligatory ""Heft Hitler"" at bedtime, this might almost be America during the war. (Sylvia fits right in with the Nazis, but she would be equally successful anywhere.) But there is a solitary local boy, harelipped Harry, to whom Kate becomes an ambivalent friend, and when some nearby Russian prisoners escape, Kate recognizes his hand. So, unfortunately, does Sylvia, who sees herself leading the campers in a glorious recapture--and it's Kate's sudden certainty that ""she would not let [Harry] be sacrificed for another of Sylvia's triumphs"" that prompts her to run off and warn him. At Harry's hideout, she is taken for a fugitive and shot dead by searching guards. The primary tension throughout comes from wondering how Sylvia killed Kate or brought about her death; beyond that, the young Sylvia's behavior is maddening enough to mobilize readers behind her sister. But the characters never come fully to life--Aunt Sylvia is consistently predictable, even to cheating at monopoly, and Harry doesn't stand up as an individual of any sort, much less one who could break through peer-group pressure to win Kate's companionship. The setting adds borrowed dimension to the sisters' story, but Degens doesn't do much to illuminate one with the other. And as for the contemporary story, it's no more than a bridge despite its frequent intrusion; it starts out strong and fizzles out. A weak sister to Transport . . . , then, but a story of some interest nevertheless.

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 1982
Publisher: Viking