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Except that Tzili, the main character in this story, is a girl, we may presume that much of what Aharon Appelfeld writes is drawn from his own experience following the 1941 Axis invasion of Bukovina and its principal city, Chernivtsi, where he and his family lived. Appelfeld was nine years old when his family was forced from its home and, like the several thousand other Jewish families in Chernivtsi, either murdered immediately (as was Appelfeld's mother) or forced to move south-eastwards into Transnistria, living in prison camps and in many cases dying there. Tzili is a little older than Appelfeld was, being 12 at the time of the invasion.

Tzili is considered dull by comparison with her brother and sisters, not worth any serious attempt at education, or even much parental attention, and is somehow left behind when her family flees from the Nazis. Fortunate in not being obviously identifiable as a Jew from her dress or her speech, Tzili manages to eke out an existence living in the forest in summer, and in winter with peasants willing to feed her in exchange for domestic and farm labour. Appelfeld did much the same, though he was initially imprisoned and managed to escape. In this novel, another character, Mark, is given the escape from a camp experience.

We know from Appelfeld's 2004 autobiography The Story of a Life (yes the title is the same as the subtitle of this book) that his first winter of the war was spent with a peasant woman who lived by selling her sexual favours. The first woman to provide Tzili with shelter did the same - and Tzili found it convenient then and later to hide her identity by posing as an illegitimate daughter of another peasant prostitute well known in the area but never encountered in the book.

Besides the ever-present possibility that Tzili may be identified as a Jew and murdered, or - more prosaically, but just as fatally - succumb to malnutrition and disease, Appelfeld successfully raises the reader's concern regarding Tzili's sexual vulnerability. In all, we become much more concerned for her than ever her parents were.

As usual with Appelfeld, an uncomplicated story is simply told. Thirty-four short chapters average less than 1000 words each. It becomes mildly irritating that the words "When she woke" open, successively, chapters 12, 13, 15 and 16, but that is presumably a faithful translation of the Hebrew original, not the fault of the translator. As is also usual with Appelfeld, he is non-specific about where his story is set (although he does make the exception of definitely identifying a city reached towards the end of the book). The presumption that the main setting is Bukovina is mine. Later, the description of an area not much penetrated by soldiers because of its network of ponds and swamps suggests the Pripet marshes, well to the north. But this is fiction; Appelfeld can shorten distances and blend landscapes as he likes. I know I am wrong to look for specific information about Appelfeld's and the wider Jewish experience in Bukovina and thereabouts. Yet I do, and the exercise is not unrewarding.
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