Fault Lines Paperback – Aug 26 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Winner of France's Prix Femina and shortlisted for the Orange Prize, Huston's 12th novel captures four generations of a family and examines the decades-long fallout of a dark family secret. The novel proceeds in reverse chronological order from 2004 to 1944 and begins with six-year-old Sol, who is sheltered and coddled by his mother as he immerses himself in all the perversities the Internet can offer. After surgery to remove Sol's congenital birthmark turns out poorly, the extended family takes a trip to great-grandmother Erra's childhood home in Munich. A turbulent history underlies the visit, and after Sol witnesses a tussle between his great-grandmother and great-aunt, the novel skips backwards in time through the childhood of Sol's father, Randall; grandmother Sadie; and finally Erra. Huston's brilliance is in how she gradually lets the reader in on the secret and draws out the revelation so carefully that by the time the reader arrives at the heart of the matter in Munich 1944, the discovery hits with blunt force. Huston masterfully links the 20th century's misery to 21st-century discomfort in razor-sharp portraits of children as they lose their innocence. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Before this English-language translation ever hit the bookshelves, Nancy Hustons Fault Lines was already a hit. In France, more than 400,000 copies of the original French version have been sold. It was shortlisted for Frances premier literary award, the Prix Goncourt, and won the Prix Femina. The novel will no doubt garner additional audiences since it is being translated into over ten different languages.
The big worry with translation is that the sparkle and zip of the original will be lost. There can be no such thing as an exact translation of a novel which runs to 328 pages. Living languages are evolving, eccentric codes. And a good translator will typically add as well as subtract. No doubt something of the original slipped away as Lignes de Failles became Fault Lines. Still, it remains a hugely entertaining and intellectually stimulating read. The novel works its way back counterchronologically in four long self-contained chapters, moving from California in 2004 to Germany in the catastrophic winter of 1945.
Each chapter has a different six-year-old narrator, all from the same Jewish family. Sol, who describes his world as he sees it, in California of 2004, is the great-grandson of Kristina, who discovered, at six years of age, that she was the victim of the Germanization programme initiated by Himmler to compensate for German war casualties. Thousands of babies were ripped from their mothers arms by the Brown Sisters-women in straight brown dresses with stiff white collars-sent by the Nazis to trawl the streets of newly occupied towns in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states in search of Aryan-looking children to take back to the fatherland. The children passed through Nazi stud farms, known as Lebensborn (fountains of life). They were given German names and placed with German families. Some two hundred thousand children were seized from their families and given new identities in this way. Not remembering her actual parents, Kristina initially likes her German family. Her new father and brother, Lothar, are both away fighting on the Eastern Front. On Wednesdays Kristina and her older sister, Greta, have a bath together:
Our favourite game in the tub is one we invented called Heil Hitler where you stand up and say Heil Hitler in a funny voice, like the voice of a ghost or a madman or a clown or a snobbish lady, or else you get mixed up in the salute and raise your elbow instead of your arm, or you put one thumb on your nose and the other thumb on your pinky and wiggle all your fingers and say: Heil Hitler.
Often children are the first to see the absurdity inherent in the rituals and formalities of adult society. In retrospect, it seems inexplicable that this gang, with their ludicrous outfits, torchlight processions, bizarre symbols, and obvious psychiatric issues, ever came to be taken seriously enough to grab political power in what had been, after all, one of the most advanced and cultured societies on earth. One is forced to conclude that the average person is a less civilised, more bestial being than liberal humanists would have us believe.
I once overheard two middle-aged schoolteachers chatting in a local bookshop; one of them had been my sisters mathematics teacher. As they moved through the history section one turned to the other and half whispered: Theres a lot about them here, the Jews. Theyve had a terrible time. Yes, replied the other man, but they brought most of it on themselves. This same individual, who likes to play a bit of jazz on Sundays, was once a Labour Party candidate for Galway City Council. He no doubt considers himself a man of sophisticated tastes and important opinions. And the strangest thing about our Holocaust-excusing former Labour Party candidate for Galway City Council is that he is not at all strange. He is the kind of person one could meet every day. Most of the time no one asks his opinion. He writes the occasional crank letter to the editor of the local newspaper and no doubt tortures his long-suffering wife with his ideas about how to put the world aright. The tragedy of Germany in the lead-up to the Holocaust was precisely that the maniacal resentments of such little men were unleashed.
Other critics have found the four child narrators in Fault Lines unconvincing. I disagree. In particular, the naïve voice of Kristina in the final chapter is used to devastating effect:
We know its not really a laughing matter [playing their bathtime game Heil Hitler] because last year Lothar ran into our neighbour Mrs. Webern in the hallway, and when he raised his arm and said Heil Hitler she didnt answer so Lothar denounced her to the police and they came and arrested her. Already her husband had been taken away at the beginning of the war and now their children had to fend for themselves with the older ones looking after the younger. Mrs. Webern was gone for three whole weeks and when she came back she said Heil Hitler again just like everyone else.
Nancy Huston successfully uses the child Kristinas matter-of-fact voice to tell the story of one of historys worst tragedies. In this Fault Lines calls to mind Irish writer John Boynes The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. However, where Boyne looks at the Holocaust as if through a microscope, Huston employs an altogether different scale. In chapter three the war is over and Kristina is living in Canada. It is 1962. The narrator is Kristinas six-year-old daughter Sadie. Sadie is mostly brought up by her grandmother:
She teaches me all about good health and a balanced diet and how to cook so Ill grow up to be an excellent homemaker like herself and unlike Mommy who lives in Yorkville in a cruddy little flat teeming with friends and cockroaches . . . Mommys boyfriends swear and criticise the government and smoke cigarettes and call Mommy Krissy instead of Kristina and dont seem to mind her having a six-year-old bastard by the name of Sadie.
Chapter two is narrated by Sadies son-Kristinas grandson-Randall. The family moves from New York to Haifa in Israel. It is 1982. History intrudes again in the form of the ill-fated Israeli invasion of Lebanon:
At lunchtime Nouzha [Randalls Arab friend] whispers to me: Sharon just invaded West Beirut, do you realize that? and I nod but I dont know who Sharon is and I wish I could just go to play baseball in Central Park.
As the chapter proceeds, Randalls own parents-his liberal-leaning father and Zionist-inclined mother-argue constantly about the rights and wrongs of the invasion. Several of Nouzhas relatives are killed in the Shatila refugee camp. The war puts an end to his friendship with Randall. Huston achieves more with this childs story than many others whove tried to depict life with conflict in the Middle East.
The book begins with the chapter set in California in 2004, although this really is the final part the familys story. The narrator is Randalls son, Sol, who tells us:
My father once lived in Israel himself when he was my age and he loved the city of Haifa so much that of all the places to live in the United States of America he chose California, because the eucalyptus and palm trees and orange groves and flowering bushes reminded him of the good old days. Israel is also where he started not liking Arabs because of some Arab girl he fell into and out of love with there.
Randall is by now a man overwhelmed by his own armchair hatreds. When the captured Saddam Hussein-his hair all matted and dirty-is paraded on TV, Randal says to his son from his vantage point on the couch: Boy, thats what I call defeat . . . I hope all those Muslim terrorists know whats in store for them.
The subject matter of this novel may be serious, but Nancy Hustons writing is never heavy. Indeed, Fault Lines is peppered with black humour. My favourite instance is on page 15 where Sol earnestly tells us that:
Recently this rabbi in Florida ordered Jewish women to stop wearing wigs made out of Indian womens hair because in India they bow down to gods with six arms or elephant heads or whatever and their hair gets all sullied by praying to these gods so Jewish women will also get sullied by wearing wigs made out of it so they have to buy new synthetic wigs at once, the rabbi said, but Grandma said that this was going too far.
Fault Lines offers a deep engagement with life as it has to be lived in this utterly flawed world. On one level it is a family saga, and a story with which a wide range of readers will identify; all of us have families, and every family has its story. But Fault Lines is more than that: it is a book which in its subtle way makes undeniable the fact that the Holocaust is a nightmare from which humanity has yet to wake up. Its ghosts are still everywhere.
Kevin Higgins (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
I think that had the author had another turn of this book, to remove the romance and provide greater insight into how the start and finish connect, it would have been amazing. It's too bad.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I sadly could not connect. I found Huston's description of children unnatural, while some of their childish thoughts struck me as real. There is a contradiction in her writing that makes for arduous reading. Yet, sprinkled through the pages are passages of lyrical and magical prose. The last two segments of Sadie and then Krystina-Erra flowed better and the characters were driven by love. Love is an important ingredient in any book. It seems to me that the writer, despite her many prizes, had missed out on doing research. Her editors must be blamed as well. It is a novel, fiction, but since it deals with an important period of history, it should be accurate and researched. Examples: No one drank hot chocolate in the spring of 1945 (chocolate in any shape had not been available for years), no one had a big fat hunk of pork-bone to eat, the weather was not icy cold as January tends to be, but in 1945 it happened to be one of the warmest Januaries, however, Huston describes it as bitter-cold. After the bombing raid on Dresden, the worst on the 13th and subsequent one on the 14th of February, not as she limits the raid to Valentine's Day--when approximately 100,000 - 300,000 people died--the weather was like spring. My father's family camped out--safe from bombs in Dresden--in the open hills, since the weather was so warm. The Americans entered Saxony in April, not in June, and withdrew in July, ceding this part of Germany to the Russians. The Ukraine was already part of the Soviet union before WW II, in fact the Russians had starved many of the peasants there in order to achieve greater dominance and were hated. The Germans were looked upon as liberators, until disillusionment set in when they treated them as inferior Slavs. There were many blonds in the Ukraine, tracing their bloodlines back to Vikings. Sending blond children to Germany if the parents had been killed might be accurate, but this is not what Huston writes. The dirty conditions the children were kept in is contrary to what the Nazis tried to achieve, namely, healthy Aryan children, who would be superior in looks and health. They would have been treated and fed well, perhaps not coddled, but not beaten either. Huston writes fiction, but if a writer deals with history he/she should at least be accurate. There are enough real horrors the Nazis committed, without exaggerating or making up new ones that are untrue.
First, I would advise reading it from back to front, reversing the order in which it was written so that you end up hearing the story in chronological order, not reverse chronology (going further back in time with each of the four sections). There was no advantage (or art) to doing it that way, and you didn't know as you read what might be important as you got further into the book (what happened to certain characters).
The children were utterly unbelievable and on the whole, the characters, including the children, were unlikable. Please, give me a character or two I can like!
Even more troubling for me (as a history major) was the author's ignorance of the periods she was writing about. For example, I personally find it hard to believe that a German facility during World War II bent on teaching Polish children to be German children would teach them to sing "Jingle Bells"! Aside from it not being a German carol (and there are lots of German Christmas carols), raising the question of whether they were trying to teach the children to be German or American, during a war people are unlikely to sing their enemy's songs!
Other mistakes had to do with the child in Toronto in 1962 (a year in which I was a child in the US). Six year olds (then or now) do not learn ballet wearing uncomfortable "pointe" shoes -- no way. They wear (wore) leather slippers -- aside from en pointe dancing damaging the feet of small children, their feet simply aren't strong enough yet to dance en pointe.
Brownies do not earn badges, and even when they get older, the badges are not given to the best in a competition -- they simply represent achievements of mastering skills.
Garter belts were not used by 6-year-olds to hold up woolen socks, but by older females to hold up nylons. A 6 year old would have worn tights or knee socks.
A 6 year old child who initially thinks people speaking Yiddish are in fact speaking German (a language she likely has never heard) would not then have to ask her mother -- speaking German to an old friend -- what language they were speaking, would she?
Finally, old childhood friends who meet up again after many years are unlikely to immediately begin having sex -- one assumes that the childhood relationship was not sexual, after all.
These things may not bother others, but I kept thinking "This book is so ridiculous -- how did this woman get away with so little fact checking?" The result was I took with a grain of salt everything she said about the central theme -- a program whereby Germans took Polish children (or children from other conquered areas) from their parents and placed them with German homes. Much she said about this is suspect, in my opinion (shipping Polish children, taken from their parents, to death camps, for example).
Finally, the author never addresses the question of whether taking children from the only home they've known (the German homes) is almost as bad as the Germans taking the children from their original homes, particularly when the children are going not to relatives or parents, but to non-German adoptive parents. In retrospect, we ought to be able to raise the moral issues involved on what should have happened. In fact (which the author apparently didn't know), many of the children were already orphans when recruited into the Germanization program (there was a nasty war going on, after all).
The style is easy to read (unusual for a translation). It made pretty good airplane reading: I bought this at a Canadian airport (Canadian author!) with my last Canadian dollars, but I probably should have given the money to charity instead.
I would not recommend paying seventeen Canadian dollars for this book! And if you care about getting the details right, you'll probably find this book as annoyingly sloppy as I did.
War is messy and creates messy situations, events and families. I have never read about the Germanization of stolen children under the Nazis. This provides a fascinating read to anyone interested in stories of WWII; however, I must agree with some of the reviewers who pointed out the lack of connection with the characters. I did immediately go back to the first and reread parts that took on much more significance after I knew the ending.
Perhaps this story also demonstrates the profound effect mothers have on their children even when they aren't a part of their lives. I found this book interesting, readable, and thought provoking. I just wish I would have liked these people a bit better, but maybe that's the point: each generation was doomed to carry the baggage accumulated by those that came before them.
It starts with the youngest, a very spoiled and self-absorbed child, Sol, whose mother dotes on him and has taught him to believe that he is destined for greatness and is pretty much the center of the universe. We are also introduced to the other generations; his father Randall, grandmother Sadie, and great-grandmother Erra. Because of the unique format of the book, we form opinions of each character by seeing their interaction with the generations before and after them, but only by later reading about their own 6th year of life can we understand why they are the way they are.
Although I was sometimes a little confused by the "backwards" storytelling and had to flip toward the front of the book to re-read some parts, I liked the concept and thought it was much more interesting than if the story line had gone from Erra in 1944 to Sol in 2004. The characters still had the same strengths and weaknesses, but the hidden history was much more powerful than a "straight" novel would have been.