Sunday, November 25, 2007

Book Review: A Thread of Grace

After several detours, I finally finished reading Mary Doria Russell's A Thread of Grace. A long stretch in the commercial airline system gave me the uninterrupted time to read it all the way through. Having liked her science fiction books, I thought I'd give this one a try as well. Russell's abilities to shape prose and draw characters are rare, which convinced me to try something different.

Thread is a story of European Jews hiding from the Nazis in northern Italy during World War II. Some of these individuals are Italian natives, some are refugees from Poland, France, Austria, and elsewhere. Among a cast of dozens, four or five stand out: Claudette, who starts out as a silly, whiny, and rather pretty young girl escaping France with her father; Lorenzo ('Renzo), an Italian veteran of the Abyssinian campaign, who drowns his sorrows over his actions there in alcohol; Dr. Schramm, a guilt-ridden Nazi doctor hiding from his crimes; and Osvaldo Tomitz, a priest helping settle and support Jewish refugees hiding in Italy.

Most of these characters do good things, often out of confused or even wrong motives, which seems to be the theme of the book. I found the aft matter of the book interesting because it provided some background into Russell's thinking when writing it. There were similar sections in The Sparrow and Children of God. At the time those books were being written, Russell was starting the moral education of her children and so was reflecting on her Roman Catholic background. Now, seven years later, she seems to have converted to Judaism. This overlapping of compassionate Christians and struggling Jews seems a good fit for where she is coming from, if I may be allowed to psychoanalyze for a moment.

As a work of literature, the book is mostly a fictionalized survivors' tale. In this way, the fortunes of the characters are determined by the circumstances of war--distant artillery, high-altitude bombers, etc. In fact, the war itself is almost completely off-stage, or at least faceless. Bombers fly out of the sky to attack, but we almost never "see" battlefields, tanks, or attacking formations; only the civilian aftermaths. There is some partisan activity, but again, that is not the emphasis of the book. What the reader experiences is the human cost of war, and how it shapes moral choices. The disadvantage of survivors' tales--affecting as they are--is that they lack the typical narrative structure. War causes unpredictable events and deaths, and not all decisions are driven strictly by personal will, but some decisions are imposed on the characters.

What I really enjoy about Russell's writing is her easily read prose. She informed me in an email that this effortless style took 60 drafts or so for The Sparrow. I presume similar work has gone into her other works. I also enjoy her ability to created flawed, likeable, and believable people. You don't just have stock types, but individuals with personal motivations that are easily identifiable. The unfortunate part of Thread, given its survivor-tale, is that you find yourself wondering who will live and who will die; in the end, survival is the only victory and the only suspense the book really offers. Therefore, if you are a reader who gets attached to characters, as I do, you are likely to be saddened or disappointed at some of the casualties.

So is A Thread of Grace worth reading? Yes, because it is something more than a survivor's tale. Most likely, the individuals upon whom she based her narrative did not enjoy any sense of "closure" or redemption, and Russell does not always provide such, even to her characters. I don't want to spoil the end, but you really need to read the whole book to appreciate what she is doing and what sorts of lessons she is able to draw from what is, in the final analysis, the irrationality of modern war.

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