More often than not, the novels of Chris Bohjalian have some sort of moral core at the basis of the narrative. I think that's why I enjoy his books so much; they're a little like morality tales slipped inside really good storytelling. As a result, I read a lot of Bohjalian and count The Buffalo Soldier among one of my favourite books by a living American writer. I didn't damn Oprah for introducing me to Bohjalian; instead, I let her pull me into him like a tight hug. He's one of the authors where I used to go to the "B" section in the bookstores looking for new titles (before I knew my way around the internets and browsed in a non-virtual environment).
Therefore, I was happy to see a new title of his this spring, Skeletons at the Feast, and sat down eagerly to read it (after letting it sit on my shelf, I'll admit, for a couple of months because I'm busy dammit!). Bohjalian's a "purely for pleasure" kind of a read. The novel doesn't satisfy any challenges. The books are afternooners, and I'm always happily surprised by their twist endings.
Skeletons at the Feast, though, is unlike any other Bohjalian book I've read. It's as emotionally impactful as The Buffalo Soldier and as epic as, say, Snow Falling on Cedars. As the Emmerich family prepares to leave the only home they've ever known, the end of the Second World War approaches. A wealthy Prussian family that runs a huge farm, they are luckier than most in that they've remained somewhat on the outskirts of the war. They've made sacrifices (the eldest brother is off fighting for the majority of the book; a ghost within the narrative itself, his story told through memory and referral) but in the months that follow, their lives will change beyond belief.
Displaced by the crumbling German empire and about to be overrun by Russians, legions of people set out on foot, walking west toward the Allied lines in order to escape the unspeakable horrors of what happens when they meet "Ivan." Mutti, Anna, Theo, and Callum, their POW (a Scottish paratrooper assigned to the farm where they lived to help with the labour) set off on foot with their father and Anna's twin brother, Helmut. Toward the beginning of the novel, Anna's father and brother separate from the group, as the two men are called into action. They leave the trio with Callum hidden underneath the horses' oats and head to the front. For everyone in the book, this journey is long, hard and not without its losses.
The powerful stories of two other main characters are intertwined with the Emmerich's: there's Uri, a young Jewish man who made a desperate escape and has been hiding among his enemies for much of the war, begins to travel with the family after meeting them on the road; and Cecile, a young Jewish girl who is forced to walk west with the rest of the starving, poorly dressed, and desperate members of her concentration camp as the Germans try to outrun defeat and shield their atrocities from the eyes of the world. The moment in the novel when all three stories come together as one, and the characters all cross each other's paths if you will, leads the book (obviously) to its conclusion.
Bohjalian writes effectively of the horrors of war, but you get the sense that some of his characters maybe aren't as fully formed as one might hope. Callum, the Scottish fellow, suffers the most from this, and his dialogue is often stilted, stereotypical and a little unbelievable (who says "chap" except in the movies?). The heart of the novel is the love story between Callum and Anna, the Emmerich's daughter, and it's fine, really just what you'd expect. But I adored the character of Uri, his moral centre, his ability to shapeshift, his utter sense of survival. I guess I look forward to Bohjalian's novels to bring a different sense of events to his novels and Skeletons at the Feast, while by no means a bad book, maybe just didn't live up to my own expectations of his work. That's not the writer's fault -- he's delivered a powerful, riveting, emotionally intense novel about a horrifying experience. It's war from the point of view of those who are surrounded by it, of those who are destroyed by it, those who must survive after the guns are down and treaties are signed.
To end, I would recommend the book, and it would be great for book clubs, but it hasn't claimed the prize as my all-time favourite of his books, The Buffalo Soldier still reigns supreme. And I have but one other bone to pick: what on earth is up with the cover of a young girl with short brown hair on a summer's day looking out over a field? What about that spells "victims of war driven to desperate lengths to save their lives as their world collapses about them"? Boo, I say, boo!
WHAT'S UP NEXT: I started Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife yesterday on the ride home. I'm already loving it. Can you tell right now I'm reading only for pure pleasure? But I guess under the circumstances, it's a wonder I'm reading at all, right?