The Leaves are Falling is a rare delight. Beginning in Yorkshire in 1945, it charts the life of Josef Halpern, a teenage Jewish refugee from Poland who has witnessed almost unspeakable horrors in the east of his country and Belorussia during the Holocaust. By feigning death in a pit full of bodies and living for a time with some partisans in the forest, he is finally able to escape from the joint menace posed by the Nazis and the Red Army. As an old man in England, he revisits his dramatic past, providing a sane and deeply moving overview of twentieth-century Jewish history in the process. Josef's father Jacob, a doctor and Polish army officer, is less fortunate, dying in the Katyn massacre of Polish soldiers early in the Second World War that was at first blamed on the Nazis, though the culprits were Russian. The second half of the novel focuses on Jacob's plight, examining religious as well as political topics in the context of a gripping narrative. The focus on life's big questions is unusual for an English-speaking novel: Beckett stands in a wider European tradition. Her writing, always elegant and deeply intelligent, stands out all the more for that. She is also a historian of considerable stature. Her researches have unearthed some fascinating details linking events at Katyn to details in the life of Dostoevsky as he prepared to write The Brothers Karamazov. The Leaves are Falling is a sequel to Beckett's novel of pre-war Germany, A Postcard from the Volcano, but can be read as a freestanding work. Highly recommended.
A novel by Lucy Beckett is not only a marvellous read, but also leaves you knowing a whole lot more than you did before. Her latest, "The Leaves Are Falling", is particularly welcome because we meet some of the characters from her previous book, "A Postcard From the Volcano", seen from a different point of view. (I was really glad to know what had happened to them...) Meanwhile, this one casts a fascinating light on what it meant to be Jewish in Poland, particularly in Vilnius/Vilna, in the lead-up to the Second World War, with a spotlight on rising Zionism. As with "A Postcard", we see how attitudes were by no means clear-cut among the Jews themselves. We find out about the lives of displaced people sent to England after the war – this is Joe's tale, beautifully drawn, full of speaking detail and subtle characterisation – and then we move back in time to what happened to his father during the war when he was a prisoner of the Russians. As in A Postcard, Lucy Beckett takes us inside the minds of her characters in such a way that you somehow know this happened some time, somewhere to real people. She shows us with real poignancy that though moral choices may be made in entirely private circumstances, they are nonetheless of huge significance for individuals, and so for humanity. Both protagonists, father and son, have their moments of confusion and doubt, and finally of being true to themselves. So, from the human point of view, I found this a truly touching novel; from the historical point of view, it was riveting. Above all, there is this vital sense that history is about individuals, and that we are all important, every single one of us. I went to Poland shortly after finishing it. While walking around Krakow, I came across a memorial: a simple black cross dedicated to the thousands massacred in the forest of Katyn. It moved me deeply, because having read "The Leaves Are Falling", I felt I had known one of the people involved.
This is a wonderful book. The sequel to A Postcard from the Volcano it follows the life of one of the slightly lesser characters in Postcard after the second world war. I can heartily recommend it as an antidote to many modern novels which are peopled by thoroughly unlikeable characters. Lucie Beckett is a mistress of characterization and story telling as well as being a committed and gifted historian. Buy this book!
This is a beautifully written and historically researched story of a survivor of the slaughter of Poles during the Second World War, whose father was murdered at Katyn. We follow the 16-year-old's life in Britain after the war and at the end of the book, discover the events leading up to his father's death. The book is a joy to read and a real page-turner while at the same time laying bare the horrifying facts of the Katyn massacre.