I read Suzanne Leal’s The Teacher’s Secret when it was released in 2016. I enjoyed the novel and was particularly interested in the way Leal considered society (in general) via the microcosm of a small town.
Her latest release ponders similar societal issues, though subtly. It’s one that unfolds in two timeframes, during World War II (and immediate aftermath) and the present. Well, 2010 which apparently is a decade ago though doesn’t feel like it.
The thing I like most about Leal’s work and this book in particular, is that she also challenges readers, taking us to dark places and forcing us to consider complex issues. She doesn’t spoon-feed us life lessons or shove ethical and political / societal / cultural dilemmas of today down our throats, but they’re evident nonetheless and impossible not to ponder – perhaps long after we finish reading.
by Suzanne Leal
Published by Allen & Unwin
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Historical Fiction, General Fiction
In 1943, a young woman is taken to a Jewish ghetto outside Prague where one of the guards—a Czech gendarme—is quickly drawn to her. Believing he will offer her protection, Hana reluctantly accepts Karel's advances only to find herself alone and abandoned in Auschwitz.
Decades later, Karel carries his regrets to Sydney where he and his family try to make a new life for themselves.
Despite her devotion to the family, Karel's wife is a troubled woman, haunted by a secret that will not leave her. Meanwhile, the couple's daughter continues to reel from her husband's infidelities as, unbeknownst to any of them, their cherished granddaughter becomes more and more entangled with her married boss.
Leal gives us several narrators, in the past and present.
We met a young Karel, a Gendarme in provincial Czechoslovakia. “Not quite military, not quite police, the gendarme was a support to the people: a protector, an adviser, a friend. (p 12)
Things change of course in the early 1940s as more Jewish Czechs are moved into fortress-like towns outside of Prague and gendarmes forced to supervise them.
Hana is a young woman living with her family in Prague when her family is ‘relocated’ and she crosses paths with Karel.
Hana and her parents are in disbelief at what the world has become, but they’re intent on surviving. But things get worse when she’s sent to Auschwitz and discovers what lies ahead.
On that day, I felt a panic, a screaming panic I could not release. A panic to find myself here, trapped in a world gone thoroughly mad.
How the to manage the minutes, the hours and days of this world? A world that might kill me at once, or instead, for no reason, might not?
What did I do? I shrunk my mind. Yes, I did. I shrunk my mind so there was scarcely room left for thinking. So that all that could fit were these two questions: When would we next eat and when would we leave this inferno? Anything more, anything else was too much. p 96
In the present we spend time with Karel, as well as his granddaughter Tessa.
And then there’s Ruth, a Reverend who ministers to Karel’s wife Irena and hears her secrets.
Ruth’s at a crossroads herself, supporting her elderly father, a retired reverend whose work she believes she’s not done justice; and—in her early 40s—worried about her lack of love life and children/family of her own.
I mention earlier the mostly-subtle messaging or themes underlying this novel: and though the worlds in which our characters ‘live’ in the 1940s and 2010 are very disparate, their stories aren’t that different.
This book is about survival and about secrets, lies and guilt. In both timeframes there’s adultery, love and lust. There’s a sense of family, of responsibility and moral quandaries.
We’re forced to reflect on our behaviour towards others. For example, I particularly liked Leals’ subtle exploration of the treatment of refugees following World War II (when one of our characters is re-situated in Europe) and an Iranian refugee who resettles in Australia in the present.
Weirdly this is the second book in short succession that I’ve read that—in part—centres around the plight of those in concentration camps.
Natasha Lester’s The Paris Secret touches briefly on the characters’ experience at a camp near the end, but here Leal offers a very detailed insight into life there and some of the completely pointless atrocities and demeaning acts inflicted on the women we meet. Of course the complete randomness of fate is confronting as well. Here… after stumbling off overcrowded trains at Auschwitz, if you’re in the left row you’re directed towards the factories with chimneys; or in the right row, to overcrowded barracks.
It’s weird to read books like this now. Our challenges (coronavirus, having to isolate and lives being put on hold) is nothing compared to what people went through during wartime, but the loss of life and fragility of life is something we’re probably more conscious of than we were years, months, if not weeks ago.
This book isn’t necessarily a pleasant read. But it’s a compelling and important one. Leal deftly doles out timely advice: she reminds us of a world that once existed and one that should never, ever exist again.
The Deceptions by Suzanne Leal was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.