29 December 2009

Review: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

January 1945. Prussia. Anna Emmerich, her mother, and her young brother are heading west toward the Americans and British and away from the Russians. Hidden in their horse-drawn wagon is Scots prisoner of war Callum Finella.

Cecile, Jeanne, and the other women in their concentration camp are being forced to walk west. Their guards will put them to work in a factory or at manual labor, wherever the Reich needs them.

Uri Singer has gone by many names and has worn many uniforms since he jumped from the train taking him to Auschwitz. At present he is Manfred and wears a German uniform.

In three separate and converging stories, we learn the personal and individual effects of the war, as truth is revealed to the blind, as hope hovers just out of reach for the desperate, and as good fortune leads to self- accountability.

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian belongs at the top of any list of World War II novels. This is not a story of politics, of war strategy, or of Hitler. This is a story of human beings, of terror, of unspeakable horrors, of naïveté, of survival, and even of love.

Only when war is shrunk to the individual level, to what happens to civilians, can those of us who have been spared firsthand experience begin to get the mere glimpse of such a world. We wonder about our own strength, our own skills, and our own survival instincts.

Anna, Callum, Cecile, Uri, and the other inhabitants of Bohjalian's novel are not characters, they are people. Each with a history that has informed the choices he or she makes during the last months of the war in Europe. We get to know these men and women, their dreams, their memories, their scars. We cannot forget them.

It is impossible to read the epilogue without sobbing—not so much because of what does or does not happen to the characters in a book but because of the sheer emotional impact of the story. Because we think of our fathers who were there as soldiers, our relatives who escaped or not, and our friends who live in phoenix cities throughout the Continent.

I listened to the audiobook edition read by Mark Bramhall. The production and narration were excellent.

Skeletons at the Feast at Powell's
Skeletons at the Feast at Amazon
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Published by Crown, 2008
ISBN-13: 9780307394958
Challenges: 100+
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
YTD: 98
Rating: A+


Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 12/29/09, 8:36 AM  

Reading this review, I could so easily see how much this book impacted you:

"Anna, Callum, Cecile, Uri, and the other inhabitants of Bohjalian's novel are not characters, they are people. "

I don't know the last time I've felt so strongly about the *people* in a novel. I'm adding this one to my reading list (along with a box of tissues!)

(is the term "phoenix city" coined by you? I understand what it means, but I haven't heard it before)

Beth F 12/29/09, 8:45 AM  

Yes, I coined "phoenix city" (as far as I know). This my top read of the year.

Molly 12/29/09, 9:20 AM  

WOW -- with such a glowing review who could resist checking this book out! Thank you so much for the introduction to a new-to-me book that I absolutely must read.

JoAnn 12/29/09, 9:59 AM  

Wow - fabulous review!! I already know I like Bohjalian's books on audio.. this is going on my list.

Literary Feline 12/29/09, 10:10 AM  

I am so glad you liked this one, Beth. I love the author's writing and have been wanting to read this one (I have a copy, but can't seem to find it! Argh.).

Thank you for your great review.

Sandy Nawrot 12/29/09, 10:22 AM  

It is like a never-ending challenge to try to read all the great WWII books. I think Anna and Serena could run the WWII challenge for several years, and I'd still not run out of them. They generally all leave me in a sort of a fugue state after I've finished, but I never tire of them. Excellent review Candace.

Greg Zimmerman 12/29/09, 10:23 AM  

Very, very good review. Couldn't agree more with your assessment that the book is more about people than the war itself. They're immensely human! I loved this book, too.

Amy 12/29/09, 11:09 AM  

Great review. It sounds like a really wonderful, if sad, read.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours 12/29/09, 11:21 AM  

This one was already on my TBR list ... now I REALLY want to read it.

Julie P. 12/29/09, 12:18 PM  

Fantastic review! I have this one so I'm so excited that it's a good one!

Margot 12/29/09, 12:29 PM  

I want to cry just reading your review so I can only imagine the emotional storm this book will be to read it. But I'm drawn to it from your review. It's going on my list.

bermudaonion 12/29/09, 1:08 PM  

This book sounds so emotional. I really want to read this one after your review.

Serena 12/29/09, 1:23 PM  

I've always enjoyed this author's work. I think this would have been a great addition to the WWII challenge.

Carrie K. 12/29/09, 1:54 PM  

I really need to read some of his work - I think my library even has this one on audio!

Marg 12/29/09, 2:36 PM  

I've borrowed this book a couple of times, once even on audio, but still didn't manage to read/listen to it. I will have to reborrow it.

Kathleen 12/29/09, 3:52 PM  

I'm sold...I'm off to request this one from my library right now!

Anna 12/29/09, 7:54 PM  

If this is one of your favorite WWII novels, I'll definitely have to get my hands on a copy, since I eat up books about that era.

I hope it's okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric

Anonymous,  12/29/09, 9:27 PM  

This sounds like a must read...adding it to my list.

Sandra 12/29/09, 9:28 PM  

I really enjoyed this story too. So glad you did. Thanks for reviewing it.

Darlene 12/29/09, 9:59 PM  

Great review. I picked this one up a while back but haven't read it yet. It looks like I should move it up the list.

The Bumbles 12/29/09, 10:46 PM  

Well that is certainly a moving recommendation and one I am adding to my reading shelf for when I am in the right frame of mind. And aptly put - needing to shrink war to the individual level for the rest of us to begin to feel things. The Holocaust Museum in DC is very effective at that. Walking into a cattle car and then exiting only to find piles and piles of suitcases and shoes of all shapes and sizes made me practically sink to my knees. Real people wore those shoes. Little tiny shoes too. Shoes like those on my own feet. So thankful I didn't have to walk in their shoes, but also thankful to have had a moment to understand a tiny flicker of what it might have been like so as to learn never to allow that kind of ignorance and hatred to grow within my heart.

Elizabeth 1/7/10, 12:31 PM  

I've been on the fence about reading this one, after having been disappointed in another novel by this author. Now I think you've tipped it into the "must read" category.

beth 1/16/10, 8:31 PM  

I've only read Bohjalian's Trans-Sister Radio, and that had a twist ending that really spoiled my enjoyment of the book. Is this a trait of his, or did I just get unlucky? Otherwise his books sound interesting.

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