Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Nazi experiment lives on for generations

Nancy Huston, an intelligent and perceptive writer, has scored handsomely with her 11th novel, which has garnered wide praise in her adopted country of France. There it has won the Prix Femina and sold more than 400,000 copies.

Narrated backward by 6-year-olds in four generations of the same family, Fault Lines attempts to meld writerly confidence with an acute eye for historical injustice. It begins in California circa 2004, with the scarily distant voice of Sol, a precocious boy who surfs the Internet for porn and plays along with his mother's delusion that he is too young to watch Bridget Jones's Diary.

We are taken into the crux of the story with the visit of Sol's grandmother Sadie, a world-renowned authority on Jewish affairs. We learn that Sadie is a passionate advocate of the Jewish cause, but Huston keeps delaying the reason, until two chapters down the line, when we hear Sadie's childhood voice from 1962.

Sol's father, Randall, whose voice we hear in the second chapter, was raised in a devout Jewish household. His parents take him to Israel in 1982, where Sadie collects material for her work. Even as the First Lebanon War gathers momentum in the background, little Randall struggles to make sense of a new, frightening place.

The central theme of the novel is the effects of the Lebensborn ("fountain of life"), a Nazi organization set up by Hitler to provide families for "racially suitable" kids from occupied territories and raise them as Germans. Sadie's mother, Kristina — the narrator of the final chapter — was one such child, taken from Ukraine as an infant and raised by a loving German woman. Kristina, however, was "rescued" and relocated to a Ukrainian family in Toronto after 1945.

Huston writes movingly of the role of history in our lives — how the past is not just a memory, but an affliction that seeps into the blood and gets passed on to subsequent generations, its effects unpredictable and unquantifiable.


This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

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