Jan says, A powerful story about the challenges survivors face after living through the horror of staying alive by outing others.
Trauma and survivor’s guilt haunt a young woman in Gillham’s stunning latest novel. Berlin-born Rachel Perlman, 29, lives in New York City in 1955 with her American husband, Aaron, having fled Europe after WWII. Gillham flashes back to the years before the war, with Rachel (born Rashka Morgenstern) living comfortably in Berlin with her widowed artist mother until the anti-Jewish laws strip them of their possessions and her mother’s livelihood. Rachel and her mother go underground and live as what are known colloquially as “U-boats,” or Jews hiding in plain sight. They’re caught in 1944, and to save themselves from being sent to a concentration camp, Rachel is pushed into helping her mother’s former muse Angelika identify other U-boats.
Now, in New York, Rachel struggles to be a conventional wife, while being terrorized by nightmares and visions of her deceased mother and others. After her uncle discovers her mother’s shocking portrait of Angelika, Rachel’s painful memories of Berlin peak into overdrive. Gillham’s use of Berlin’s cafés and New York’s walk-ups, restaurants, and parks is superb, and the generous sprinkling of Yiddish in the text adds a layer of richness. While the story is a tribute to resilience and starting over, it doesn’t shy away from the hurt that adults can bring to children. This is heart-wrenching and memorable.