Susanna Moore’s The Life of Objects reminds us that people have very different ways of reacting to even the worst sort of trauma. It begins simply: Beatrice Palmer, an Irish Protestant girl, longs to get away from her undemonstrative family and her dull and backward part of the world. Like some scullery maid in a fairy tale, her ticket out is her ability to make lace. But Moore also reminds us that fairy tales can turn very dark indeed.
Beatrice is taken to Germany to make lace for the Metzenburgs, an aristocratic German couple who live on a Sansouci-esque estate with some servants. Unfortunately, the world is on the cusp of World War II, which doesn’t trouble this naive young Irish girl overly much. She knows nothing of war, after all. The worst thing she’s ever had to deal with is her unloving mother. Still, the Metzenburgs begin to secrete their family heirlooms, piece by piece, in the hope that these objects will remain untouched when what happens happens. They, their friends and their staff expect to resume their lives after the unpleasantness. But, by the time they realize their old lives are gone forever, it’s much too late.
Of course, the reader has no such illusions. We know what’s going to happen and we keep reading as Beatrice and the Metzenburgs endure one horror after the other, pulled along by Moore’s writerly skill and control. Beatrice is her narrator and her chronicler and she recounts all the ghastly things that happen to her with a surprising lack of outrage or terror. It’s as if Moore is saying that in times of war, people too become objects to be used and discarded. Still, we’re outraged on Beatrice’s behalf and on behalf of the German couple she’s grown fond of. One hesitates to use the word “love,” since Beatrice doesn’t seem given over to such powerful emotions, but what else except love would keep her from getting on the first transport back to neutral Ireland at the first sign of real trouble?
The Life of Objects is an unflinching look at both human cruelty and human resilience.