Top critical review
Holocaust in a Rosy Aura
on 1 December 2011
I couldn't make up my mind about this book - was it high-level chick-lit (as the horrible cover might imply) or attempting to be a serious novel? Certainly the principal subject: the life of a Polish Jewish woman who is sent first to the Warsaw ghetto and later to Auschwitz, becomes pregnant as the result of rape and who later, found in the liberation of Auschwitz by a British soldier, attempts to build a new life for herself and her daughter, pretending that a lot of her past traumas never happened - until her increasing illness from Alzheimers makes this impossible - is a fairly serious topic, much more serious than most chicklit novels would tackle. And Sara Macdonald writes rather movingly about Martha/Marta's experiences in Poland - although this is a much less detailed account of the terrible experiences of the Jews than in much Holocaust literature, she appears to have done her research fairly well. Marta's early friendship with a German boy and its tragic results and her growing hardships in World War II were vividly pictured.
But when we move onto the modern sections of the book (a good two thirds of the novel; the historical bits are spliced in between sections of the main, modern story) I began to feel less convinced by the characters. Everything seemed to have a slight sugar-coating. Martha's Alzheimers, for example, was far less agonizing and messy than this cruel disease is in real life (for a really good account of someone watching a Hitler-victim descend into dementia, read Linda Grant's 'Still Here') - she merely seemed whimsically childlike, rather than confused or frightened. Fred also seemed to cope with his illness much better than many cancer victims (and I somehow felt that making him a disinherited aristocrat really was a bit chick-litty!). Barnaby was simply too good to be true, and Sara Macdonald missed out on all sorts of interesting possiblities of describing his faith, and the struggles he might have had (believing in a benificent God when your parents are both dying of horrible diseases, for examples). Still, his relationship with Kate was quite movingly depicted, even though we never got to know quite enough about Kate, and again her job as a carer seemed easier than it probably would have been. Anna, Barnaby's sister, came across as too stereotypically nasty in the early sections of the book, though Macdonald did write fairly interestingly about why she had become as she had. Worst of all were the descriptions of Lucy, her daughter, who mostly seemed like an self-righteous immature spoilt brat. Would any daughter really say to her mother 'You're a real little facist, aren't you? I feel sorry for you'. If Lucy had really been damaged by Anna's treatment of her she'd have been far more vulnerable as a person; as it was, she came across as quite cruel towards her mother, and horribly sure of herself. And if Anna found Lucy so difficult to deal with, would she have ever had a child in the first place? I didn't feel the relationship between the two was ever properly explored. Neither was the former Nazi's guilt at his past, a very complex subject. The army sections were well-written (Macdonald has first-hand experience as an army wife) but I found her automatic assumption that the army is a glorious career slightly irritating, and Tristan (at least in the early stages) rather too hearty. And predictably enough we got a very 'happily-ever-after' final section. Also, why set a novel in beautiful Southern Cornwall and spend so little time describing the landscape? We could have been anywhere in Cornwall or Devon by the sea for the amount of description we got.
Also, there was a problem with the central mystery - I felt Martha's lies about her past would never fully have worked; particularly passing off her daughter as so much younger than she was.
I enjoyed reading this book as a 'low-concentration' but quite gripping read at the end of an evening, but on the whole I think the author was trying to tackle some very big topics in a popular-fiction style that ultimately wasn't appropriate. To really bring this off, Sara Macdonald would have had to write in a much more serious style, and provide less of a sense of 'everyone really being ever so happy'. Certainly a good effort, and much better than your average chicklit, but ultimately a slightly saccharine read.