- Spiegel, Maura
- Date of entry: Sep-23-2008
- Last revised: Sep-22-2008
The voice of a young girl leads us through this spare and tautly told story of a closely-knit family upon whom tragedy falls like a plague. Before death and mental illness take up residence there, we meet the Bronstein’s, two parents and four children, in their comfortable, well-run home outside of Boston. Hermann delicately renders the portents of change and pain that haunt all loving families. The novel opens with the nine year-old Ruby Bronstein’s discovering, while walking along the beach with her three older brothers on a winter afternoon, an old rusty pistol poking out of the sand.
The family story deepens as the teenage Ruby recounts a sojourn with her parents to Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp where her father was interned as a child. Hermann’s restraint and precision in this sequence make this potentially familiar journey entirely new. With her young eye trained on her father’s every muscle-twinge of reaction to what he sees, she crisply conveys the unknowability of even an adored father –let alone the events that took place within these walls. Her father’s inaccessible childhood memories are not miraculously jarred by this return to the scene of trauma – but he learns shortly thereafter of a brain tumor that soon will end his life.
One tragedy follows another, the emergence of mental illness in one brother, the death of another. The narrative traces Ruby’s efforts to carry on in the face of these devastating losses. Here is where the novel explodes in cold fire, in its quiet accounting of a young person’s grief as it is lived in its ordinary, daily course. Loss begins to deform her social life, giving her the feeling that she is a freak. The scale of things is too disproportionate; she dresses for the prom while her brother lies dying in the intensive care unit. Carrying the stigma of disaster, she hides news of family developments for which she has no vocabulary. What good would talking do anyhow, she asks –until she finds the listener she needs.