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Skeletons at the Feast

by Chris Bohjalian

The novel is set in January 1945, in the waning months of World War II. Our hero is Uri Singer, a young German Jew. After a dangerous escape from a train bound for Auschwitz, he begins to make his way through the frozen fields of Poland towards the American and the British forces known to have landed in Normandy. While hiding in a barn he is cornered by German soldiers, and, in a frenzy, he manages to kill them both. He takes one of the soldiers' uniform and identity and money, and continues on his way. Surprised once more, he kills again, and, bitter in the knowledge that his own parents and adored sister are probably dead or dying at the hands of the Germans, he feels no guilt at all, and even begins to enjoy his new role as a serial killer. Most of his victims, young German soldiers, mistake him for one of their own, and some he does not know at all, but needs their food, identity papers and money. But word gets about, and during one of his disappearances, when he is in great danger, he falls in with the wife and children of a well-to-do German farmer.

The Germans are refugees who are trying to escape the advancing Russian army by making for the safety of farms in the south owned by friends or cousins (nobody realised then that the Russians would ever reach Berlin). They are accompanied by a British POW who had been allocated to them to help on the farm. The father and elder brother of the family stayed behind to help the Militia to turn the Russian tide as it rolled over Poland (they are never heard of again) and Uri is able to help the family keep their horse-drawn carts safe and moving along among the thousands of other refugees fleeing from the Russians. They think that Uri is a Wehrmacht corporal called Manfred who is heading back to his company, which is engaging the Allied armies in the south west. He is highly intelligent and resourceful, and fearless in their defence, and they all come to like and trust him. And to his surprise he begins to truly like them, his enemies, including the British POW. Together they witness the horrors of a country ravaged by war, and something begins to warm the senses of the young Jew, who had so nearly become a clever and dangerous savage.

Chris Bohjalian's brilliant novel is deeply researched, and he acknowledges the inspiration he received from reading the diary of a Prussian grand-mother whose trek from her farm in Poland to escape the Russians was carefully chronicled from day to day, no matter how appalling their sufferings. Bohjalian does her proud. It is a fascinating book.

Review by Paula, the Downs Book Group.

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