Book Review: Promised Land by Martin Fletcher

 

Promised Land is the sweeping saga of two brothers and the woman they love, a devastating love triangle set against the tumultuous founding of Israel.

The story begins when fourteen-year-old Peter is sent west to America to escape the growing horror of Nazi Germany. But his younger brother Arie and their entire family are sent east to the death camps. Only Arie survives.

The brothers reunite in the nascent Jewish state, where Arie becomes a businessman and one of the richest men in Israel while Peter becomes a top Mossad agent heading some of Israel’s most vital espionage operations. One brother builds Israel, the other protects it.

But they also fall in love with the same woman, Tamara, a lonely Jewish refugee from Cairo. And over the next two decades, as their new homeland faces extraordinary obstacles that could destroy it, the brothers’ intrigues and jealousies threaten to tear their new lives apart.

Promised Land is at once the gripping tale of a struggling family and an epic about a struggling nation.

Promised Land is an ambitious novel about family and love, set in the aftermath of the Holocaust and tracking two brothers’ lives during the early years following Israel’s independence.

As the book opens, Peter and Arie are young boys living with their family in Germany as war looms. Their parents are able to send Peter to America, but the rest of the family can’t avoid the Nazi terror, ultimately being sent to concentration camps.

Peter spends his teens with a kind American family before fighting in WWII, then ultimately moving to the new state of Israel and joining its intelligence service. Arie survives Auschwitz, but the rest of the family perishes, and Arie too ends up in Israel, where the brothers are reunited. A meeting with an Egyptian Jewish refugee, Tamara, changes both brothers’ lives. Peter and Tamara have an instant connection and a moment of passion, but Peter is sent on a mission with no communication possible for months. Meanwhile, Arie woos Tamara, and by the time Peter returns home, Arie and Tamara are married and expecting a child.

Promised Land takes place over a roughly 20-year period, from Israel’s birth in 1948 through the Six Day War in 1967. As the brothers and their families build their lives, we see the country also build and develop. Peter rises in the ranks of the Mossad, known for his operational expertise and sense of honor, while Arie becomes an astute businessman, always ahead of the curve in seeing opportunities for making money and profiting from the growth of the nation. Peter marries a lovely woman, a fellow agent, and has a good life with her; Arie and Tamara, while becoming fabulously wealthy, have a rocky marriage due to Arie’s excesses and infidelities.

Eventually, the love triangle between Peter, Arie, and Tamara explodes, which isn’t surprising… the only surprising element is how long it takes to reach that point.

In terms of my reaction to the book, I was hooked from start to finish, but at the same, I felt that the emotional set-up of the relationships in the story was somewhat flimsy and not well-developed. Arie is a terrible husband, no two ways about it, and just isn’t a particularly good guy. Why Tamara chose to stay with him really makes no sense, and neither does his reaction to learning the truth about Tamara and Peter, other than demonstrating Arie’s possessiveness and selfishness.

Peter really is a good person, a devoted family man and brother, and he acts in Arie’s best interest even when Arie is engaging in shady, criminal behavior. He is a good loving husband to his first wife, and (spoiler alert) after her untimely death, denies  his love for  Tamara well past the point when there was a reason for either of them to think that her marriage was worth saving.

What this book does very well, and what makes it a deeper read than a typical love triangle story, is the positioning of these characters at such a distinct and eventful moment in history.  The author, a former news correspondent, uses his well-researched knowledge of the events of the time to paint a portrait of a people’s psychology.

We come to understand the underlying needs, fears, and guilt of a Holocaust survivor. While despising much of Arie’s actions, I could also sympathize with his pain and understand why he acts the way he acts and what drives him to pursue wealth, power, and admiration.

We also learn about the psychology of the early Israelis, coming from the horrors of genocide, knowing that their new homeland may not be a safe place, and wanting desperately to find the security so long denied. The author does not sugarcoat the more unpleasant aspects of Israel’s creation, but does show a context and depth of understanding that’s often missing in today’s narratives.

At the same time, as the characters live through Israel’s cycles of war, we get a more in-depth look at the political machinations behind the scenes, thanks to Peter’s role in the intelligence service. It’s fascinating to read about the hidden reasons for Israel’s actions, the lingering impact of Nazi scientists on Middle Eastern politics, and the ways in which Cold War politics play into Israel’s strategies.

Overall, I found myself immersed in the story, fascinated both by the historical setting and the characters’ lives. Yes, I found the characterizations a little formulaic (good brother, bad brother, exotic love interest), but the story progresses in a way that kept me engaged and made me care about these people and their lives.

I did find the ending somewhat abrupt. The story seems to just end. I think even one more chapter, perhaps an epilogue, might have helped to create a better sense of completion and satisfaction.**

**While doing a final proofread of this review, I popped over to Martin Fletcher’s author page in Goodreads and discovered that this book is the first in a trilogy! I guess that explains why it ends when and how it does, and why I was left feeling that there was more of the story to be told.

Despite a few drawbacks that got in my way here and there, I’m glad to have read Promised Land. For anyone interested in Israel’s early years, this is a fresh take on the history of the time, and the characters in the story are memorable and relatable – you won’t soon forget them or their struggles.

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The details:

Title: Promised Land
Author: Martin Fletcher
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Storyteller

The Storyteller

(Goodreads): Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses… and then he confesses his darkest secret—he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all—if Sage even considers his request—is it murder, or justice?

How do I even begin to describe a book as powerful and devastating as The Storyteller? While I knew the basic premise, I had no idea what I was in for when I first started reading it.

At the outset, we meet Sage, a reclusive young woman bearing scars of a tragic accident that cost her her parents. Sage lives alone in a small town in New Hampshire, where she works nights — again, alone — baking a miraculous, marvelous assortment of breads for the small bakery that employs her. Baking is both Sage’s passion and an escape, providing her with distraction and a focus, as well as a good excuse to avoid almost everyone.

It’s silly to anthropomorphize bread, but I love the fact that it needs to sit quietly, to retreat from touch and noise and drama, in order to evolve.

I have to admit, I often feel that way myself.

Sage is forced out of her comfort zone only when she attends a grief support group, where she meets and befriends a newer member, Josef, a sweet old man in his 90s who seems to be just as lonely as Sage. Gradually, the two connect and begin to share bits and pieces of their lives, but Sage’s pleasure in the friendship grinds to a crashing halt when Josef confesses his Nazi past to Sage and asks her to help him die.

Sage is aware that her beloved grandmother Minka is a Holocaust survivor, and remembers catching a brief glimpse of the tattoo on her arm. But Minka has never said a word about her experiences and refuses to answer questions. Sage doesn’t know where to turn. Josef is a well-respected member of the community, a man known as an excellent teacher, kind to all, a man who always did his best to help the town. How can he be a Nazi? In desperation and disgust, Sage tries to connect with law enforcement, and is finally directed to the Federal agency which investigates alleged war criminals, where an agent named Leo Stein takes Sage’s call. Leo encourages Sage to get more information. It’s not enough to know that Josef has claimed to be a former SS agent. In order to take any action, they’ll need to be able to tie him to the historical records through facts, witness reports, or other details that can’t be fabricated.

Why is this book called The Storyteller? Within the novel, we get story upon story. The book opens with a scene that seems like something out of a different world — a tale with a folkloric flavor set in a small Polish village, in which the main character is the baker’s daughter, who feels a growing attraction to a strange young man who’s just arrived in the town, which is also beset by strange animal attacks. It’s not obvious, at first, how this tale, which weaves in between chapters of the contemporary story, actually fits into the main narrative, but it does, and is worth paying attention to.

After the initial section of the book sets up the story of Sage and Josef, we move into the heart of the book, which consists of two more sets of stories. First, we hear from Josef, who tells Sage that he is not Josef Weber after all, but Reiner Hartmann, an SS officer whom Leo is able to find in the historical record. Josef relates the story of his life to Sage, from his childhood in a typical German family to his growing success in Hitler Youth, to enrolling in the SS and becoming a part of the death machine that rolled through Poland. His story includes unflinching looks at the horrors in which he participated, slaughtering men, women, and children in village after village, and finally becoming a lead officer at Auschwitz, overseeing all female prisoners.

Josef’s confession to Sage isn’t enough, though. In order for Leo to take legal action and start the long process that could lead to extradition, deportation, and facing trial for his crimes, they need to be able to tie Josef’s story to something contained in the secret files on Reiner Hartmann, something that couldn’t have been gleaned from the public record. And at this point, Sage takes Leo to meet Minka — and Minka breaks her decades of silence by relating the terrible story of her girlhood, the fate of her family, and her own experiences in Auschwitz.

Minka’s story is the true center of the book, and Minka herself most aptly fits the role of the title, The Storyteller. Minka’s tale is lengthy, detailed, heartbreaking, and horrific. This is the longest section of the book, and is simply devastating to read. I won’t go into detail here; on the one hand, anyone who’s read the stories of Holocaust survivors will recognize some of the common elements here, yet on the other hand, Minka’s narrative is so personal and closely-observed that each loss and each degree of suffering feels like it happened to people we know. Within Minka’s narrative of what she lived through are more bits and pieces of the village tale that’s sprinkled throughout The Storyteller, and we finally discover the link between the book’s characters and the events of the tale.

The central question in The Storyteller is one of forgiveness and atonement. Can someone truly be forgiven for past crimes? Whose job, and whose right, is it to forgive? Can someone who’s committed evil acts ever make up for them? Do 50 years of helping others erase a heinous past? Does it make sense to prosecute a 95-year-old man for the crimes he committed almost seventy years earlier?

I don’t know what this person did you you, and I am not sure I want to. But forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me. It’s saying, You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.

There are no easy answers here. Sage does what she feels to be the right thing by bringing in Leo and cooperating in the investigation, yet she feels a moral obligation toward Josef too. When she looks at him, she sees the horrors he committed, but at the same time she see a lonely, frail old man who loves his dog and mourns his wife of fifty years. Can she feel sorry for him even while feeling repulsed by all she knows? And how does hearing her grandmother’s story affect her ability to listen to the request Josef continues to make of her?

While painting a vivid portrait of a period of history that must not be forgotten, the author is also making an important statement about the power of stories:

Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Secrets, lies, stories. We all tell them. Sometimes, because we hope to entertain. Sometimes, because we need to distract.

And sometimes, because we have to.

Jodi Picoult’s fiction tends not to come with easy answers. Of the four or five of her books which I’ve read, all include moral quandaries — people put in difficult or almost impossible positions, where the path forward is murky and ethical questions abound. The same is true of The Storyteller. There’s much food for thought here, and no matter what you think of Josef himself, his request, and Sage’s actions, you’ll definitely find yourself replaying scenes in your mind over and over. I’d imagine that the ending will be controversial for many, and there are certainly plenty of arguments to be made as to why it is or isn’t the right ending, or what the characters should or should not have done.

Ultimately, The Storyteller is a tale of pain and loss, but at the same time, it inspires hope simply by allowing the reader to bear witness to the courage and sacrifice that accompany all the horrors which Minka shares through her story. The Storyteller is not a light or easy read, but it’s an important one, and I applaud the author for creating a work of fiction that explores such a horrible piece of history with grace and honesty.

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The details:

Title: The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: February 26, 2013
Length: 460 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased