In his latest novel, Skeletons at the Feast, Chris Bohjalian takes his readers to World War II-era Europe in a gripping tale told from various viewpoints. This is a departure for Bohjalian, whose previous novels, including Midwives and The Double Bind, are largely set in bucolic New England, where the author himself resides.
Bohjalian was inspired to delve into the last days of the Third Reich after reading the real-life diary of Eva Henatsch, an East Prussian matriarch who recorded her family's trek West ahead of the Red Army in 1945. With this and other acknowledged sources serving as his background material, Bohjalian demonstrates an intricate historical knowledge and impressively illustrates the stark horrors of the time.
Bohjalian's mix of characters brings a human face to the historical depiction. Eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich exemplifies one of the newer victims of the war; until now, she and her upper-class family have lived in relative luxury on their Prussian estate, where the parlor wall boasts a signed, framed photograph of Adolf Hitler (though the family had taken in a family of Jewish friends five years earlier). But now that the brutal Russian army has invaded, their reality has drastically changed, and as they make the harsh journey to reach the British and American lines, their former life (described in flashbacks) becomes a distant memory.
Also on the road with the Emmerichs is Callum Finnella, a Scottish prisoner of war who has been laboring on the family's estate. He and Anna are engaged in a furtive affair that Bohjalian describes in sometimes torrid detail. Also on the journey is German Corporal Manfred—otherwise known as Uri Singer, a Jewish escapee from an Auschwitz-bound train in disguise. And then there is Cecile, a Frenchwoman on another trek: a death march from a concentration camp.
Skeletons at the Feast is a compelling read, with its mix of history, romance and portrayals of strength in the midst of severe adversity. War really is hell, the book says, but the human spirit is ultimately salvageable.
Rebecca Stropoli writes from Brooklyn, New York.