Thursday, December 20

Skeletons at the Feast

Photo from Flickr
Audio books are expensive, and many of the books that make my wish list are not available in that format at all. As a result, I sometimes have to take my chances with audio books from the library's stock that I wouldn't otherwise have picked up.

Occasionally, this reading roulette brings me an unexpected gem; that was case with Skeletons at the Feast.

If you are unfamiliar with the phrase, as I was, it refers to reminders of troubling things amidst happy or pleasurable times/events. It was only at the end of the book that I could really appreciate the deep aptness of the title.

Told from the perspective of refugees fleeing the invading Russian army in the last days of World War II,  the book delves deeply into what it is to be a civilian - a single person - in the heart of a nation at war. The only other book I can think of that dealt with war from a non-soldier perspective at this deeply human and personal level was Across Five Aprils (which was written for a much younger crowd).

Skeletons is one of those books that you need to chew on and digest slowly. The plot is simple, following aristocratic, 18 year old Anna and her family as they leave their prosperous farm to become refugees, trudging literally across the country to escape the oncoming Russian army as it rapes, pillages and burns everything in its path. With the men away in the Army, Anna, her mother and her young brother Theo are joined by Scottish prisoner of war Callum, loaned from a Nazi work camp to help with their harvest before they fled. En route, they encounter Uri, a Jew masquerading as a series of German army officers while searching for his young sister. Meanwhile, Cecille, a young French woman, struggles to keep herself and her friends alive through the brutality of labor camps and forced marches.

The subtext, however, is anything but simple. Gradually, the sheltered women find their naivety stripped from them and replaced with horror, grief and confusion as they see and experience the atrocities of their own nation. Though the author handles them deftly, deep questions run through the book's undercurrent.

I can't begin to cover in a single blog post the complexities and deep considerations the book prompts, but if you're looking to stretch your brain (and your heart a bit), you might well consider this for your reading list.

Warning: This is a book about war, and it's extremely graphic. It contains rape, brutal violence, extensive death, and adult themes. It is absolutely not appropriate for children, and should be avoided by sensitive readers as well. If it sounds interesting but you tend to be troubled by the aforementioned caveats, please consider reading Across Five Aprils instead. It deals with many of the same themes less graphically.

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