World War II. Christians. Jews. Nazis. Poles. Families destroyed, separated, torn apart. These are the background themes to Renate Krakauer’s debut novel Only by Blood (Inanna Publications, 2015). The story ferries back and forth between the past and present as different cultures, faiths and families intersect.
The novel begins in Warsaw, Poland in 2005 when an elderly man tells his doctor (Mania): “I knew your mother’s family, you know.” Mania is taken aback since her mother (Krystyna) has never really talked about the past despite being 96 years old and in seemingly good health. Krystyna is the only family Mania knows and as such is very close to her. “You were her whole world, you know” an old friend of her mother’s tells her.Mania’s life is soon turned upside down when Krystyna falls in her apartment and her health rapidly starts to decline. Knowing her end is near, Krystyna’s last words to Mania are: “Find them…make it right.” Mania can only guess that the them are her mother’s two sisters who she had lost all track of due to the war separating them. This leads to her quest to find her mother’s family and to right whatever unimaginable wrongs her dear mother could have possibly thought she committed and has kept secret all those years.
A Fascinating Debut Novel
This book grabbed my attention right from the first to last page. Actually, it began with the telling front cover, that of a pair of elderly, time-worn female hands grasping both a crucifix and the Star of David. The pace of the novel was exceptional, for it had a well-maintained flow, despite alternating between the 1940s and the present. All the women are strong in character and often courageous while the men, such as Mania’s husband Witold and Rose’s husband Mark are very supportive and loving towards their respective wives. The addition of certain Polish words and phrases (there is a helpful glossary at the back of the book, a fact I would have appreciated knowing when I began the book!) making the conversations all the more authentic. Especially convincing are the scenes of the war years in Poland as Jews were being hunted down, forcing the fortunate few that escaped capture to hide in the woods, or in barns, sheds or attics, secretly supported by sympathetic Catholic Poles. It was a harrowing time and Ms. Krakauer’s research and background have well served her in recreating the horrors of Nazism.
I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the other story lines in this novel so as to not spoil the enjoyment of reading this fine novel. I will say though that take away the background of the war, and you still have themes that are relevant today: mother-daughter relationships, the adopted child searching for her birth parents, and families reconciling with the past. A complex novel, to be sure, but Ms. Krakauer leaves it up to reader to apply these possibilities to their own lives. There is enough happening to Mania, Krystyna, and Rose to keep any reader’s attention for 300 pages!
Renate Krakauer has written an exceptional debut novel, and as such I will happily add it to the 2016 long list for “The Very Best” Awards for fiction.