This ambitious, eloquent and thoughtful novel about an American expat studying the Holocaust in Berlin establishes new author Ida Hattemer-Higgins as one to watch.
The book begins with grand evocative imagery of a world in chaos. "The oceans rose and the clouds washed over the sky; the tide of humanity came revolving in love and betrayal, in skyscrapers and ruins, through walls breached and children conjured, and soon it was the year 2002."
What follows is a surreal portrait of the madness of young Margaret Taub, who "looked like someone who would find trouble, or in any case already had." She suffers from amnesia, having lost six months of memory after a trauma she cannot recall. Two years later, an odd shrink, or "memory surgeon," tries to help Margaret recover, but she refuses treatment and ignores "what sinister chain had wrapped her life."
Estranged from her mother back in New York, Margaret lives alone and studies German history at the university. She also leads walking tours of former Nazi sites throughout Berlin. Her willful ignorance about the cause of her amnesia contrasts with her job, which forces her to guide others through the horrors of the Holocaust. Soon, Margaret is hallucinating, seeing the city as flesh and foolishly playing ghost whisperer and history detective. She dodges the spirit of Magda Goebbels, tries to be a medium for a dead Jewish mother, and begins to remember a romance gone very wrong.
In one of the novel's most powerful scenes, Hattemer-Higgins shows Margaret changing what she tells tourists based on how sad or intrigued the facts make them. It's a moment in which readers must consider how they would convey the immensity of the Holocaust if it were up to them.
At its core, the novel is based on the idea that an understanding of the Holocaust carries inherent dangers if we try to take on so much history alone. As Margaret fails to recognize before it's too late, "There are magnitudes of suffering that cannot be held in the mind," and, "One of the unstillable horrors of the Holocaust is that it is a crime for which no vengeance can be had. Millions killed by millions more -- there is no justice there. There will be no restitution."
The expansive, wise voice, echoing Margaret Atwood's talent, makes up for several overwritten sections and some inventive yet pointless scenes. But this is a first novel. And it wraps up nicely. The tragic final section lets us root for Margaret's recovery as she learns hard facts about her family's part in the Holocaust. The devastating conclusion proves Hattemer-Higgins is a serious novelist intent on creating courageous fiction.
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle based in Philadelphia.