Friday 13 June 2008

Frustrated expectations (Orange Prize for Fiction 2008 shortlist)

Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston (Atlantic Books)

As the author’s end-note tells us, ‘Between 1940 and 1945, over two hundred thousand children were stolen from the territories occupied by the Wehrmacht’, and the younger ones adopted by German families. Starting with this lesser-known horror of the Nazi era, Huston asks what the fallout might be down the generations.

The book doesn’t fall back on cliché or received wisdom. Because the chronological journey is in reverse, starting in 2004 and moving back down the generations to 1944, our expectations are set up only to be confounded. Sol, the spoilt six year old of the present day, has delusions of grandeur of a pathological scale that would not be out of place in a leading Nazi. Is this because he inherited DNA from a Wehrmacht officer? Or has the traumatic history of his Israeli grandmother left the family inclined to over-indulge him? As the narrative is taken up by Sol’s father, grandmother and great-grandmother, it becomes clear that nothing is so simple, or so morally unambiguous.

The book deliberately frustrates the reader’s expectations that everything will be explained by unravelling the past. Small things do have their origins revealed. Why does great-grandmother Erra call her mole ‘Lute’? What is the significance of the doll in her sister’s home in Germany? These questions are opened up in the first section and not answered until the last. Then there are bigger themes. Why does Erra sing without language?

Language, a recurring theme as the generations move from country to country, is both a symbol of identity and used to explore of the pragmatism of children, who learn to get along wherever they are. Young Randall attends Hebrew school with a Palestinian girl, who teaches him some words of Arabic, though they can converse in English. But this sharing of culture is not enough to stop the massacres in Shatila and Sabra refugee camps driving an irreparable wedge between them.

Writing through the eyes of children allows the novelist certain freedoms. The naïve narrator can on the one hand, spell out realities or ideas that would sound too direct from an adult character and on the other hand, not impose an adult understanding. This leaves room for the reader’s own emotional response to terrible events. And there are plenty of terrible events in this book, as the thread of war moves from Germany to Palestine and onto Iraq. Of course six-year-old Sol doesn’t understand the meaning of Abu Ghraib. He just wants his dad to be a war hero. But we recognise the name and bring to it our understanding of their world.

The problem is that the children’s voices in Faultlines just don’t ring true. Though they may think like children, the characters seem to feel the way adults do. They are too wise, too sophisticated, for their ages. And at times they don’t even think like children. Sol, who has a precocious interest in masturbating to images of sex and violence on the internet, looks at the American soldiers looking down at dead Iraqis and imagines them thinking ‘There but for the grace of God…was this a human being?’ Is any six year old capable of comprehending death in that way, or of imagining the response of soldiers in that situation?

This leaves the main characters exposed, too often, as mouthpieces for Huston’s ideas about inheritance, identity, politics and guilt. The story itself, a messy and complicated family history of secrets, shame, loyalty and love, cuts across simplistic notions about what people are, and what they are capable of. But the voice of the narrative fails to convince, so what could be a truly fascinating book is self-conscious and loses its impact. Overburdened with horror, and its impact on children, Faultlines is provocative and original in its ideas, but deeply flawed as a novel.


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