Blog-Tour: Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi

Today I have the pleasure to host the Blog-Tour for Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi. Featuring a fantastic Q&A with Alex Christofi and my review. The answers to the Q&A are just as captivating as the novel itself. The last four questions contain some spoilers, so for anyone who hasn’t read it yet and wants to read it without any extra info I will be adding a fair warning before and after those particular questions.

About the Author

Alex Christofi was born and grew up in Dorset. After reading English at the University of Oxford, he moved to London to work in publishing. He has written a number of short pieces for theatre, and blogs about arts and culture for Prospect magazine. Glass is his first novel. His second novel, Let Us Be True, is published by Serpent’s Tail.

Follow @alex_christofi @serpentstail Visit alexchristofi.com

Buy Let Us Be True

About the book

Paris, 1958. After a chance encounter, Ralf and Elsa begin a love affair that will mark their lives. Both already bear scars from their continent’s violent upheavals. The end of the war brought Ralf to Paris, where he feels he can hide from the past. Elsa meanwhile tries to hide not just her past from Ralf, but her present too. As they fall more deeply in love they face a dilemma: can you really love someone without giving yourself away?In a Paris recovering from the Second World War but riven by protests and discontent as the old world order falls away, Ralf tries desperately to hold on to the only person he has ever felt he belongs with, while facing the prospect of a reality where love might not be enough. Deeply moving and sweeping in scope, Alex Christofi’s second novel is an unforgettable love story as well as a profoundly affecting study of the personal cost of Europe’s bloody twentieth century.

Q&A

Before we get down to business (i.e. talking about your book) I would like to ask a set of questions I call ‘Breaking the Ice.’ (readers love to get to know all about their favourite and new authors)

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know) I tend to consume books like tapas, so this is actually quite hard to answer. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, or a selected volume of Voltaire, or Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, or Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

Books or authors who have inspired you to put pen to paper? Mikhail Bulgakov, Emmanuel Carrere, George Orwell, George Saunders, Michel Faber, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Gustave Flaubert, Joseph Roth, Albert Camus. I love writers who can fuse beauty and cleverness with social purpose.

The last book you read, which you felt left a mark (in your heart, soul, wallet…you name it) The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Everyone has been talking about her for years so it’s not exactly a hot tip, but that’s the honest answer.

Are you more of a movie night or series-binger kind of guy? (Combinations are possible) Movie night. There are enough hanging plot threads in my actual life – I want to be able to sit back and look at the whole story. I don’t need Scheherezade feeding me cliffhangers every night forever. It’s like asking if you’d rather have limbo or a quick death.

Which famous person (dead, alive, barely kicking) would you most like to meet? Not probably any of the people I most admire. Marcus Aurelius was objectively a top guy, but would be a terrible date – after two drinks he would leave citing moderation in all things. You’d want someone with a wicked sense of humour who knew how to live. Hunter S Thompson would probably kill me, but maybe Angela Carter or Ernest Hemingway. Or Obama. Everyone wants to meet Obama.

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about Let Us Be True.

Where did you get the inspiration for Let Us Be True? Probably a question you have been asked before, but I am genuinely interested in the inspiration for the story of Ralf and Elsa. It’s strange, because what I have ended up with is really a character novel – one that devotes a lot of space to investigating the particular psychology of two particular people – but I first conceived it as a novel about the moment after the Second World War that is rarely written about, after the initial reconstruction efforts but before the individualistic, consumer-driven sixties was in full swing. I wanted to write about what it was like to find yourself on the very cusp of the modern era.

Why Paris? Did you pick this particular setting because you know it well or because it made sense logistically, culturally and from an historical point of view? I wanted to write about a place very like our own, but different enough that people could judge it for what it was – a bit like the way Shakespeare tore into society by setting everything in Italy. But Paris in 1958 was also a fascinating place in its own right: the Fourth Republic was collapsing; the communists were still one of the biggest parties, but there was a fascist fifth column in the police; French Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle was returned to power in a military coup and suspended the constitution; France was effectively at war with its own Muslim population; there were peaceful protests, but people were still being guillotined. Parts of Paris were already petrifying into an eerily timeless postcard city, and at the same time some of its residential neighbourhoods were ‘îlots insalubres’, dirty islands of slum housing, where no one owned a fridge and tenants shared a squat toilet. I can’t think of a better (or more intense) analogue for the conflicts we are worrying about here and now.

Although you don’t play on the underlying theme too much, do you think Ralf and Elsa connect in such a monumental way because they share a common denominator in their home country and war-trauma? Absolutely – it is a part of why they connect and also one of the reasons why they clash. But the war itself can’t be spoken about directly, because it simply wasn’t done. It could be referred to, or implied obliquely, but very few people who were involved had any desire (or perhaps even ability) to talk about what they had been through. It is an elephant in the room – the clearest metaphor in the book is of Ralf and his mother sitting at the dining table, painfully aware of the father that isn’t present. Ralf eventually opens up about some of his childhood experiences, but Elsa doesn’t reciprocate, and we implicitly understand why.

Does Elsa accept the negative aspects of her marriage, because she feels guilty and believes she deserves to be punished? Is her separation from Ralf a form of penance? I don’t know if I could be that specific, but sadly it wasn’t uncommon for women to accept physical abuse as a fact of life at that time (which is not to say we have resolved the problem now). Whenever we make choices, we weigh them up relative to our life experience. Elsa’s life with Theo isn’t the worst thing that has happened to her, and its great virtue is that it’s secure and predictable. She has never had that before – for me at least it becomes hard to judge her choice, even if we wish she could make the leap.

Unbeknownst to Ralf Elsa represents the root cause of why his life changed in such a drastic way. Does Elsa make a choice against Ralf because she believes the truth about her past would be an insurmountable hurdle between them? Yes, I think so. But more than that, in order to reveal her past to him, she would have to give him access to parts of herself that she hasn’t shared with anyone, including her husband and family, and it would make her vulnerable in a way she hasn’t been since she was a young girl hiding in a forest, muddy, shivering, terrified and alone. The war didn’t end when the last shots were fired. There was a whole generation of survivors whose lives were irrevocably scarred by what they saw and did, and they were out there, walking in the world, for the best part of the twentieth century. We’ll never know whether so many of them remained silent to protect themselves or to protect the rest of us.

One could argue that Elsa presents a certain coldness, a lack of emotion even, and one could suggest that her experiences in childhood, and as a very young woman, have defined her personality and the choices she makes. However that specific sense of survival and ability to detach herself from emotions was already evident at an early age. This information in combination with the actions of many Germans during the Nazi era begs the question whether Elsa really is the lovable enigma who has managed to enchant Ralf like a personal Mata Hari or is she a woman who is a ruthless survivor? In some sense Elsa is, if not the Nazi ideal, at least a Nietzschean ideal, a forceful, self-directed character. She can’t or won’t be absorbed into a group mentality, which exposes a fundamental contradiction in Nazi ideology: they simultaneously exult exceptional individuals and demand people subsume themselves to the herd. Are some people more valuable than others, or are we all interchangeable members of a group?

I did also really want this to be a story about love, and I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that love is one of the best answers to some of the questions posed in the book. But I wanted to resist this idea that’s very common in romance, that the underlying purpose of women’s behaviour can always be explained with reference to sex. Perhaps she is not stringing him along; perhaps it has nothing to do with him.

Thank you for answering all of my questions, even the odd ones! It was a pleasure – thank you for reading it with such care and attention. I think all writers dream of having careful readers!

Review

This read brings a sense of nostalgia with it and an aura of hidden emotions and unfulfilled desires. It is so much more than just a love story. It is about fractured identities and the trauma of war.

It is often hard for non-nomads or people who stay in one place their entire lives to understand what it is like to not feel as if you have a home or a country that feels like home. Being uprooted and becoming a displaced person can rock the very foundation of your existence.

I believe Elsa and Ralf share this feeling of not belonging and loss. Their home country and country of birth is their common denominator, despite their completely different paths in life.

Ralf doesn’t even feel at home in his surrogate country, and he also refuses to maintain a relationship with his mother. His landlord has become his family, a port of call in dire situations and France has become his safe haven.

Elsa is a survivor, albeit one from the other side of the battlefield. Her experiences have made her emotionally unresponsive, which is why she finds it hard to connect with her child and why she struggles to find a sense of peace in her life. It is also the reason she accepts certain negative aspects of her marriage including the occasional  bouts of violence.

I wonder if Elsa believes her guilt is something that would eventually come between them. A secret she can never reveal and perhaps never completely move on from.

Overall Elsa gives off a sense of detachment, a cold and hard face she presents to the world. It’s easy to forget her age at the time of her crimes and her complicity. Her trauma is no more than a footnote in history, although it is ultimately what steers and directs her sense of unhappiness.

In that sense the two of them share another bond in the form of very specific trauma. One could argue that his will always be greater because of the historical implications, however I would argue that trauma cannot be measured by what outsiders think.

France, like many other countries are often guilty of revisionism, especially when it comes to history. They like to forget and hide their guilt and crimes, and the part they played in some of the bloodiest and politically disruptive times in the twentieth century. They like to sweep a lot of uncomfortable truths under the carpet of national charm.

This is a love story taking place during some of those periods in time, so it isn’t just about two broken people finding a safe haven in each other, it is also about shining a light on the past. A past that is in danger of being repeated as we speak.

The author brings a maturity, insight and wisdom to the pages. He writes as if he has experienced decades of longing, pain and heartbreak. He is an author I will be revisiting. Oh and kudos to him for the Vélodrome d’Hiver part of the story. It’s a very significant and poignant part of history. A small moment in the book, but those are the ones that count.

Buy Let Us Be True at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Let Us Be True blog tour (1)

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Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson

Today it is my turn on the Blog-Tour for Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson. Believe you me, you won’t want to miss this one.

About the Author

Born in 1978 in Marseille, France, and a graduate of Political Sciences, Johana Gustawsson was a journalist for television and French press. She now lives in London, England.

Visit johanagustawsson.com/en/  Follow @JoGustawsson or @Orendabooks on Twitter or on facebook.com/johana.gustawsson/

Buy Block 46

About the book

In Falkenberg, Sweden, the mutilated body of talented young jewelry designer Linnea Blix is found in a snow-swept marina. In Hampstead Heath, London, the body of a young boy is discovered with similar wounds to Linnea’s. Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1944. In the midst of the hell of the Holocaust, Erich Hebner will do anything to see himself as a human again. Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald? Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, joins up with Linnea’s friend, French true-crime writer Alexis Castells, to investigate the puzzling case. They travel between Sweden and London, and then deep into the past, as a startling and terrifying connection comes to light.

Review

It is a well thought out psychological thriller. One that will drag the readers to places they probably don’t want to go to. From one of the darkest periods in 20th century history to the cries of scared little boys.

The reader is taken from the past to the present and back again as the story progresses. This in itself isn’t unusual, but the where and the why is. Regardless of whether the story is taking place in the past, in the middle of the human quagmire of despair of the Buchenwald concentration camp or in the present searching for a vicious killer, both story-lines are equally captivating. In fact it was so intriguing that I was telling myself to read faster to get to each new chapter.

Gustawsson knows how to make your skin crawl, make you want to cry and make you livid with anger, sometimes all at the same time. She does exactly what one would expect a good storyteller to do, reel her audience in and keep them wanting for more.

Block 46 is abhorrent and it is also quite callous at times. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a psychological thriller weaving threads from a notorious concentration camp all the way to the tortured and abused body of a little innocent child.

The author spins a wicked tale of terror, pain and deception. It is an absorbing combination of history and crime, with a flair of Nordic noir and a nefarious mind behind it all.

Buy Block 46 at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Susi, the granddaughter from house nr.4 by Birgitta Behr (English review)

susiI think this book is remarkable, it would be perfect for educational purposes. It is the type of book that should be available in primary and high schools. It is a great way of teaching children and teens about one of the darkest eras of 20th century history.

I really liked the way Behr combined the artistic element of the book with the narrative and prose. She delivers the changes in the law, the atmosphere and behaviour towards Jews during the Nazi era, in a way that is concise and brutally honest. At the same time she manages to deliver history through the eyes of a child and with a lot of compassion.

The illustrations are simplistic and yet at the same time they are crude and to the point. They are enhanced by the written slogans, graffiti and the story itself.

Susi experiences how her life is taken apart and destroyed bit by bit by the changes in her country. Suddenly Jews are persona non grata. Her family has to rely on both friends and strangers to help them to survive the atrocities of the war. There are plenty of unsung brave people, who helped instead of looking away during that difficult time. They tend to be forgotten when history is recalled.

Behr brings you up close and personal to the events of that time period without having to use any graphic images or violence. The new laws and ‘rules’ are shown in form of crude slogans, which makes it all the more realistic. The words show the injustice and inhumanity without having to show the true measure of the violent situation.

The focus of the book is on this one family, as opposed to everyone who suffered and the entirety of the situation. In a way it makes the book even more poignant and it gives the reader the feeling of empathy and of being involved. The reader relates to the little girl, because it is easier to connect to her fate and story.

It is a book of important historical relevance and one I will gladly recommend.

Buy Susi, die Enkelin von Haus Nr.4 bei Amazon de, Amazon UK or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Read Susi, die Enkelin von Haus Nr 4 (German review) here.

Susi, die Enkelin von Haus Nummer 4 von Birgitta Behr

susiEs ist ein bemerkenswertes Buch. Es sollte zum Lehrmaterial in Grundschulen und weiterbildenden Schulen dazugehören. Mit diesem Buch kann man den geschichtlichen Ereignissen in diesem bestimmten Zeitraum gerecht werden, und dabei hoffentlich den neuen Generationen aus den Fehlern der Vergangenheit lehren lassen.

Die Geschichte handelt von einem jungen jüdischen Mädchen dessen Familie und Leben auseinander gerissen wird, wahrend des Zeitalters der National-Sozialisten und des Zweiten Weltkrieges.

Susi muss mit ansehen wie ihr Leben und alles was ihre lieb ist langsam zerstört wird. Juden sind plötzlich persona non grata. Ihre Familie muss sich auf Freunde und Fremde verlassen, die sich selbst in Lebensgefahr begeben um die kleine Familie zu schützen.

Mir gefällt die Kombination von Illustrationen, historische Fakten und Behr bringt einem nahe an das Geschehen ohne nackte Gewalt oder Schreckensbilder. Die Worte sind effektiv in dem Sinne, das Sie die starken Kontraste, die Ungerechtigkeiten und die Wahrheit darstellt ohne auf Spezialeffekte zurückgreifen zu müssen.

Behr macht den Leser auch darauf aufmerksam, das es auch Lichtblicke gab in diesem schrecklichen Zeitalter. Es gab auch viele mutige Menschen, dessen Namen und Geschichten unter dem großen Gewicht der Schuld verschwanden.

Der Schwerpunkt dieser Geschichte liegt auf die Ereignisse von dem diese Familie persönlich betroffen sind. Dadurch werden die restlichen historischen Ereignisse nicht vermindert, sondern eher in den Hintergrund verschoben, um mehr Aufmerksamkeit auf die einzelnen Schicksale zu lenken.

Eine Bilderbuchgeschichte mit historisch wichtigen Inhalt.

Kaufe Susi, die Enkelin von Haus Nummer 4 bei Amazon de, Amazon UK oder schau mal bei Goodreads vorbei für andere Anbieter.

Read Susi, the granddaughter from house nr. 4 (English review) here

The End of Law: A Novel of Hitler’s Germany by Therese Down

end of lawDown does one thing really well in this story, she says it how it was. Regardless of the upsetting details, the horrific truth, the despicable depths humans were willing to go to just to get rid of unworthy humans.

Instead of the focus being on Karl and his crisis of faith, which is what I believe Down intended, the surrounding drama of domestic abuse drowned out that particular part of the story.

Aside from the personal family drama I think there could have been more focus on the struggle or indeed non-existent struggle of any of the perpetrators.

Guilt or lack of guilt, how do they or did they deal with their unimaginable cruelty, and the design and testing of their calculated killing machinery on a day to day basis?

The efficiency, the structure, the planning and the sheer scale of annihilation is still quite inconceivable, and yet it happened. Not only did it happen, but it took far too many years for other countries to intervene and stop it. Mass murder executed with the precision of a military siege. It’s what makes the Holocaust different from any other genocide or mass murder in history.

The research was sound and the details were remarkable, despite the gruesome and atrocious nature of said details. I especially enjoyed the trivia about a certain high ranking Nazi’s brother. Very interesting indeed.

Buy The End of Law at Amazon UK or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Rywka’s Diary: The Writings of a Jewish Girl from the Lodz Ghetto by Anita Friedman and Rywka Lipszyc

rywkaPerhaps a better title would have been: Where is Rywka? It is certainly the question I was left with after reading this book.

The diary of Rywka Lipszyc has been verified as one of the many manuscripts hidden or buried by some of the unfortunate individuals on the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz.

Those brave men hid detailed manuscripts, diaries and other written accounts of concentration camp victims in an attempt to retain some kind of evidence.

Evidence of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their many collaborators. As we now know, they were right to think there would be a highly organised attempt to cover up everything that took place during the Holocaust.

It’s interesting to note that a lot of the pictures of the Lodz Ghetto used in the book are actually propaganda photos (much like the ones taken in the Warsaw Ghetto) taken by the Nazis themselves in an attempt to manipulate what the world thought was going on in the ghettos. Instead of the truth they presented healthy and glorified images of the situations, which is why many of the photos seemingly portray happy workers and healthy people.

The truth was and still is an indicator of the abysmal deeds the human race is capable of.

Holocaust survivors are plagues by survivor guilt, pain, despair, anger and feelings of helplessness. Is it any word the majority of them choose to bury the memories of this period in their lives in a deep dark locked box, hidden away in the back of their minds. Some of them never speak of their experiences at all, others changed their identities and even religion, which means the people around them may never know what their loved ones went through in the Holocaust.

Rywka’s diary is much like that of any other young girl, full of emotional turmoil and personal drama. It often seems as if she chooses not to reveal the entire despair and pain she feels. Keeping an element of denial and in doing so a steady level of normality in her dismal world. She tries not to acknowledge the truth about her baby brother and sister, although her subconscious and the truth slip through now and again in her writing.

Mina had to make a choice between Rywka and Esther. Her decision was the most logical and one all of us would have made. Regardless of that fact I think she still feels a certain amount of guilt because of her choice. She based it on information given to her by the doctor treating Rywka,

Perhaps we will never know what really happened to Rywka. If she is alive then perhaps the trauma has caused some sort of amnesia, maybe she feels resentment towards her cousins or being with them could bring back memories she doesn’t want to relive. The reality and the more probable scenario is that Rywka didn’t survive very long after the cousins were separated, and she is buried somewhere under a wrong name or in a completely different place.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Holocaust, history and eyewitness accounts of that particular era.
I received a copy of this book, courtesy of the publisher, via Edelweiss.

Bloodhound: Searching for my Father by Ramona Koval

Bloodhound

You can definitely feel and read Koval’s career or literary background in this book. Her thirst for answers, searching in every nook and cranny, and not leaving any stone unturned. Even stones that have nothing to do with anything at all.

It isn’t just her quest to find out who her father is, it is also the search for answers in her parents, and would be parents past. Learning about their personal journeys before, during and after the Holocaust.

The way people, who have lived through the Holocaust, differentiate between Holocaust survivors and Holocaust refugees. Most importantly how each one of them has changed, due to the traumatic experiences in the time of mass extermination and expulsion of Jews and other persona non-grata before and during World War II.

The psychological trauma, post traumatic stress and emotional scars are there, but the layer of silence they have laid upon themselves, makes healing almost impossible. Then again can you ever forget, forgive or heal from the reality of the Holocaust?

Regardless of whether they have learnt to survive under the most dire and brutal of circumstances or survived outside of the concentration camps, their experiences have changed them forever. The chapters describing the need of survivors to talk after their release from the camps, and then the inability to do so, is just so poignant. Like open-mouthed screams of silence.

I can honestly say I have come away with a lot from this personal journey. Koval presents her personal experience with a strong mixture of historical fact, witness statements, court documents and autobiographical excerpts. I have made a list of books to read, mentioned and quoted from by Koval in Bloodhound.

Kudos to her for pointing the finger at Poland. For some reason their part in the atrocities, always seems to be downplayed, as just being the country where they built concentration camps. The fact that Poland helped the Nazi’s to kill almost all their Jewish population barring a few survivors, and then had the audacity to murder all but a few of the survivors returning from the camps. No, that doesn’t get a enough attention at all.

Although I completely understand her journey and her obsession, and yes I do believe it had become an obsession, I am not sure she completely understood the implications for herself and those around her. Changing the family dynamics by changing what was previously assumed to be the truth about her parentage, and that of her sister.

When she goes deeper into the origins of her DNA ancestry, it has a slight tinge of elitism, which to be fair she does acknowledge. Other than satisfying a base curiosity those results are merely a distraction in her actual pursuit of the truth.

In the end I wonder if the lack of result or confirmation of the truth, whatever that truth may be, is exactly what Koval wanted to achieve. Perhaps not knowing and dwelling on possible scenarios is better than having to accept a truth and reality she would rather not accept.
I received a copy of this book, courtesy of the publisher, via Edelweiss.