March 10, 2013

Simplicity leads to surprising depth in ‘The Life of Objects’

“The Life of Objects” by Susanna Moore (Knopf, 240 pages, $25)

“The Life of Objects” by Susanna Moore (Knopf, 240 pages, $25)

Beatrice Palmer – who likes to think of herself as Maeve, the name that her revered teacher, Mr. Knox, calls her, after the pirate queen of legend – is meant for something more than life in an Irish village behind the counter of her parents’ shop.

So it seems like the stuff of fairy tale when an exotic foreigner notices Beatrice’s lacemaking skills and insists on carrying her off to Berlin to live in the household of Dorothea and Felix Metzenburg. They are art collectors who entertain most of the European literati of their day, so Beatrice is exposed to beauty and culture in the form of art, music and books of which she has scarcely even dreamed.

But the year is 1938 and the country is Germany, and this is not a fairy tale.

It is “another World War II novel” and yet unlike many of them, most especially in the voice of its heroine, a deceptively simple one, as is the story itself.

The horrors of the war unfold in her quiet voice and Susanna Moore’s equally quiet prose. This is not a Jewish household, yet the Metzenburgs welcome Jews as part of their inner circle.

When one of these, Herr Elias, with whom Beatrice has fallen in love, disappears, she decides to send a letter to every single concentration camp she can find in the hope that one will reach him. The simple recitation of the names of the camps illustrates the kind of deep menace that has been instilled into the members of Beatrice’s “family” and Germany itself.

The war ends, but the trials of the Metzenburgs, their household and the village near the country estate where they have ridden out the war (enduring bombings, hunger and great loss) do not. For the village of Lowendorf is on the Russian side of the newly drawn line.

The reader comes to the end of this little book and begins to realize, like Beatrice, the depth of what has taken place in the course of the story. And, like Beatrice, at the same time barely to be able to comprehend it.

As she begins to contemplate a future and the loved ones who are left to her, Beatrice savors the deep pleasure derived from soap, real coffee, sunshine and silence created by the absence of planes and tanks.

Despite the loss and devastation – some profoundly personal – she has seen and endured, and the new, often painful knowledge gained because of it, Beatrice also knows this: “If the old world had remained the same, … I would have disappeared into the sewing room with my bobbin and thread. I knew that the war had given me a life.”

Now it is up to her to be worthy of the sacrifice.

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