March 15, 2010

Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Historical Fiction
2008 Shaye Areheart Books
Finished 3/7/10
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from the Russian front to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.

Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family's farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred—who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.

As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna's and Callum's love, as well as their friendship with Manfred—assuming any of them even survive.

Perhaps not since The English Patient has a novel so deftly captured both the power and poignancy of romance and the terror and tragedy of war. Skillfully portraying the flesh and blood of history, Chris Bohjalian has crafted a rich tapestry that puts a face on one of the twentieth century's greatest tragedies—while creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.

I seem to be on a World War II kick these days. I was helping a co-worker put together a list of World War II books for an upcoming event at the store and I now have dozens of titles to add to my wish list. I could easily spend a year reading nothing but books set during this time period, but I think that would be a bit too depressing. As it is, I chose a couple of lighter books to read once I finished Skeletons at the Feast.

Skeletons at the Feast is not a light, entertaining read. It's one of the more gritty WWII novels I've read and on several occasions I found myself cringing. We're all aware of the atrocities of this particular war, but to read the details of the incredible cruelty inflicted upon those in the camps and death marches made me stop and wonder if I really wanted to continue reading. But I did. And I'm not sorry, as the book is a refreshing account of a well-documented time in our history.

I was impressed with this novel and found myself wondering why I haven't read more of Bohjalian's books. It's been quite a few years since I read Midwives, The Law of Similars, and Trans-Sister Radio, and I enjoyed each of these enough to think I'd discovered a new favorite author. But I still have several of his works (Water Witches, The Buffalo Soldier, Before You Know Kindness, and The Double Bind) on my shelves or TBR list. And just last month, Secrets of Eden (his 12th novel) was released. Am I the only one who forgets to read an author they enjoy?! If it hadn't been for book club, I may not have stumbled on this gem for who knows how long!

My book club meets in a couple of days and I'm anxious to hear the other members' reactions to this dramatic story. The novel is a little slow-going at the beginning, but once the narrative returns to the earlier days of the war, when the characters come to know one another, the pacing picks up and I found it difficult to set the book aside. But I wouldn't be surprised if some of the group members decided to skip this month's selection due to the disturbing nature of the story.

Bohjalian was inspired to write Skeletons at the Feast after reading the diary of a friend's East Prussian grandmother, which spanned the years between 1920 and 1945. In addition to the diary, Bohjalian's research included several books that are already on my TBR list. One in particular, All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein, continues to call to me. Like Elie Wiesel's Night, I'm sure it will be a heartbreaking read. And yet, I'm still drawn to it and others of this time period. I find I learn a little bit more each time I read a book about World War II.

Final thoughts: I originally gave this book a higher rating (4/5), but while discussing it with my husband, I decided to drop the rating down a notch. The following are my quibbles:

Bohjalian's excessive usage of em dashes was distracting, particularly in the opening chapters. The fact that they're typographically disruptive is one thing, but more importantly, it seemed to indicate a jarringly parenthetical series of thoughts that might have flowed better had they been woven more naturally into the main sentence.

I found it difficult to care about any of the characters and feel they could have been fleshed-out more.

The second portion of the epilogue felt like an after-thought or a means of tying up a loose end. (I can't go into detail without revealing a spoiler.)

The "love affair" between Anna and Callum didn't ring true and the sexually explicit details seemed gratuitous and unnecessary.


  1. I want to like his work, but I just don't. I thought Midwives an excellent book which really painted a true picture of the area, but I haven't been able to read one since beyond the first few paragraphs. If you'd like another view of that war, may I suggest A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute. It is broad and deep and covers a lot. I loved it. Lots about radio communication. The movie, which was on PBS originally, is also great.

  2. I started this one and just couldn't get into it. But maybe I'll be in a different frame of mind if I tried it again???

  3. I really want to read one of Bohjalian's books, but don't think I'll start with this one. It sounds like a book that will stick with you, though.

  4. I just picked up Midwives at the library book sale. Sounds like I need to pick this one up, too.

  5. Nan - Thanks for the recommendation. Rod has told me for years that I should read A Town Like Alice. I saw a nice new issue of it at work yesterday. I also have a copy of his Pastoral on my shelf somewhere. Have you read it? Did you send it to me??

    Staci - It takes quite a while to get interested. At least 50-80 pages! If it were a great read, I'd say stick with it. Not sure it's worth it, although some of my book club members enjoyed it more than me.

    Kathy - Yeah, I wouldn't start with this one! Maybe Midwives or Law of Similars, although I've heard The Double Bind is good, too. I think you're right about this one sticking with me, though. The images are pretty powerful.

    Lisa - I'd send you my copy, but I wound up checking it out from the library. I'm trying not to buy as many books as I used to! :)

  6. I've only read one book by this author - Midwives - and I really liked it. Not sure why I've never read anything else, though I'd like to. This one appeals to me as I read many books from this period as well.

  7. Anonymous6:55 PM

    Well, the cover at least seems compelling! You're braver than I, though, Les, daring to go where angels fear to tread in terms of war.

  8. Tara - You might enjoy it, especially since you enjoy reading from this time period, too.

    Isn't funny how we forget to read some of our favorite authors? I have 3 others in my stacks that I'm anxious to read now!

    Bellezza - I agree, it is compelling. And I especially prefer the hardcover art over that of the paperback.

    Not sure why I have this fascination for books set during World War II...

  9. I rated this one a 4/5 (very good) and Secrets of Eden a 3.5/5 (good). I have several others by Bohjalian on my TBR Shelves as well. What I thoroughly enjoyed was experiencing the timeframe from a new perspective. Yes, the details were despicable, as all WWII books tend to be, but it intrigued being that it came from a different point-of-view.

    BTW - I thought Night was an excellent book.

  10. Joy - Hmmm, if I gave this a 3.5 and you gave it a 4, and you gave Secrets of Eden a 3.5, does that mean I'll give it a 4 or a 3?! ;) I haven't really heard too much about it, and I don't have a copy, so I doubt I'll get to it for a while. I still have The Double Bind (Blind?) in my stacks somewhere.

    Yes, the new perspective was refreshing. I've just about finished another dealing with WWII, set in Hong Kong. Another interesting perspective, although I can't say I loved the book. Strongly liked, but not a keeper.


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