As has already been established by many a book club where I was the only person in the room not moved to tears by a book (The Book Thief being the most obvious example), I Have No Soul. I don’t ‘do’ heartwarming, and normally find stories that parade themselves as such to be dull and/or pretentious. So I was pleasantly surprised to really really enjoy this debut, which might as well have ‘HEARTWARMING’ written across the cover in massive capitals so desperate is the marketing to portray it as such.
The story, sort of, of a Jewish couple who survived the war, though affected by the devastation it caused both on a personal level, married, had two children, bought a beautiful tumbledown house in the Southern French countryside, and then never spoke again. This is told by their granddaughter, who spent years of her life researching her grandparents’ story, and in turn the story of the Jewish experience during the Second World War, thus exploring her internal psyche as a immigrant, refugee, and survivor. It is also the story of how Miranda fell in love with the French village her grandparents bought property in, and how staying there changed her life.
This is an odd book to review because it doesn’t really have a plot or structure as such, it is Miranda’s experience of her grandparents, followed by her grandparents’ story, but it also feels very much like a memoir rather than a straight forward autobiography, and is more like a collection of memories that a linear history. What comes across most strongly is the great amount of respect, love and admiration Miranda clearly has for her grandparents, and her grandmother in particular. This is more like a love letter to Anna, to whom the book is dedicated, and who is the best thing in the book. I’d have loved to have dinner with her as she sounds fabulous. A book for anyone who loves family, or ‘finding yourself’; I’ve not read either, but from what the millions of people who have borrowed them from my work library and loved them have said, this book reads a bit like Eat Pray Love meets Chocolat.
And therein lies my one problem. Miranda is, what, five years older than me? And yet in parts she writes like women were writing fifteen years ago, which is probably when she starting writing the book. By adopting a style of writing of books that were very very big at the time, and yet not correcting or editing the style as she gets older and pieces the book together, it makes it seem oddly dated in places, and I found it occasionally hard to relate to Miranda and her journey. I don’t know if it is because she is from a very very different culture and background to mine, but it just felt like it was written for fifty year old American women, who I guess would be it’s target market. That’s in no way to disparage the writing, which is moving, if a little stiff, it just felt a little disjointed in places.
The accounts of her grandparents’ history however were shocking and made me feel both emotionally stricken and powerless. You imagine refugees that got out of the line of fire of the Nazis and make it to Switzerland waltzing happily off into the sunset in the manner of the Von Trapps at the end of The Sound of Music: not so. This book is also very good at looking at the psychologically effect of the Holocaust, or the Shoah as it is referred to in the book, on the survivors, but also Jewish people today. I read this book over Holocaust Memorial Day, which made the reading of it even more poignant.
All in all, this is a good, but not perfect book. It is going to be a best seller because it has Best Seller written all over it, and deservedly so, it is ten years of a woman’s life. I hope it does well.