Thursday, August 6, 2009
First things first. I must thank Jackie from Farm Lane Books for sending this book to me for my birthday. This was not an unknown novel for me...I'd been hearing about it from Jackie since I started following her blog, and I knew it was her favorite read from 2008. Now this Jackie, for those of you that don't know her, is not an easy sell. It takes an amazing read to get her attention. I just knew I was in for all kinds of something good.
The book begins by alternating between two seemingly unrelated stories about enduring love:
The first story is about a young British gentleman, Leo, who has regained consciousness in an Ecuadorian hospital. He is told his beloved girlfriend, Eleni, is dead as a result of a bus crash. He refuses to believe it is true. He can't remember what even happened. But slowly it all comes back, and we watch this poor boy endure the raw emotion of heartbreaking loss, of refusing to leave her side, even through the autopsy and embalming process. He buries her in her homeland of Greece, then returns to England where he attempts to restart his life, reconnect with his friends, continue his PhD, and try not to see Eleni in every fly, bird and snail. He seeks answers in drink, sex, and quantum physics. He slowly descends into a pit of depression, guilt and isolation where nobody can reach him. Except for perhaps his father, who has his own secrets and lessons learned that he'd rather keep to himself.
The second story takes us back to WWI. A young, Jewish man, Moritz, is drafted to fight with the Austro-Hungarian forces against Russia, leaving behind his childhood sweetheart, Lotte. They have vowed to marry when he returns, and seals the deal with one chaste kiss. In battle, he witnesses the death of all of his friends, is captured as a POW and sent to a prison camp on the far side of Siberia, near Mongolia. He escapes and walks nearly 10,000 km over a five year period, encountering murderers, rapists, thieves, beggars and more than a few kind souls, all whom leave their marks on him. He is driven by the sole vision of Lotte waiting for him back in his hometown. But the closer he comes to salvation, the more frightened he becomes. Will she have assumed him dead after all these years? Will she have found someone else? Is she even alive?
As you hope and pray throughout the book, these stories do indeed dovetail into an amazing climax; intertwined fates that illustrate the horrors of grief, the power of love, and the endurance of spirit.
On the last page, we discover part of the story is semi-autobiographical. If you are even half-human, you are bound to be touched, maybe even cry. You are bound to remember this story for many months - it might even creep into your dreams. You are bound to place this book on your all-time favorite reads, like Jackie and now me. For a person who has been translating a diary of a relative that fought and survived WWI to return to marry his sweetheart, I can't begin to explain how this has affected me, and how I feel the book was placed before me at the perfect time.
5 out of 5 stars