I have a hard time giving up on books. But I think I’m going to return Skeletons at the Feast to the library unfinished. I generally like Chris Bohjalian’s books – or at least I find them interesting, because they always have such train-wrecks of plots. This one fits the mold, in a sense, with plenty of characters going through life-changingly horrible events, but it’s his first historical fiction, set during WWII in Germany. Now usually, I’m all about historical fiction, but with this one, all I can think is “been there, done that.” Of course, I haven’t been there or done that, but I’ve read about it a million times, and seen movies, and I’m not feeling anything fresh from this story.
I haven’t actually encountered a story with these particular situations – a Prussian family fleeing the Russians, an escaped Jew, a Scottish POW – but they don’t feel new. A Thread of Grace, now that felt new. It felt worth slogging through the depressing bits and the horrors because the material was handled so skillfully, and the characters were fascinating, and it approached things from a fresh angle (to me, at least). In Skeletons at the Feast, I want to be interested in this family – but I’m not. Their story is based on events recorded in a real diary, and it sounds like a great story to tell, but it’s not working for me.
What did me in (I’d been having some doubts, but decided to give it another shot) was a scene of unrelieved squalor. Uri, freshly escaped from the trains to the camps, has been taken in the for the night by an old woman with a “lipless, toothless maw.” She stinks, is bent over from age, and can’t speak clearly. While they’re waiting for dinner to cook, she “motioned for him to help himself to one of the limp, rotting stalks of what he thought may once have been celery in a chipped bowl on the table.” Even the bowl is chipped. I get it! Things are bad! Everything is bad! Depressing! War! The evils of human nature! Squalor! Stop hitting me over the head with the frying pan already and get on with it.
Instead, I’m reading Anil’s Ghost, which was given to me many months ago and has languished unread. It’s depressing, too – war, dead bodies, no one to trust. But it’s good depressing, where the language is pulling me in and the main character is intriguing. This is more like it.
If anyone wants to talk me into finishing Skeletons at the Feast, please do. I can slog through if I know it’s worth it.