The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel
I have my book club to thank for this one, though I’ll admit I read it the month after we discussed it. Better late than never, right?
Eva Traube Abrams, a librarian near retirement, is shelving books when a magazine photograph catches her eye. It’s a book she hasn’t seen since the Nazis looted library in a small French town sixty-five years ago, one she dubbed The Book of Lost Names. Now, German researchers are trying to find the rightful owner, as well as crack the code inside it. Only Eva holds the answer.
In 1942, Eva fled Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Upon finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she forges documents to help smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland. Erasing people, and hiding her own faith, comes with a price, one confounded by her attraction to the Catholic forger named Rémy. To help make sense of her competing feelings, she insists on keeping a record of the children’s real names in The Book of Lost Names. The book becomes even more important when their resistance cell is betrayed and Rémy disappears.
Eva begins the story with clear plans for her English degree, but the war throws her life into chaos, creating immense emotional insecurity. Much of the story takes place inside Eva’s conflicted thoughts. Her guilt, her attraction to Rémy, her tense relationship with her mother, and her concern about the war all feature prominently—too much at first. I had trouble connecting with Eva because it felt like she did nothing but deliberate and worry. Perhaps I saw too much of myself in her. By the end, however, I was rooting for her, and I found the ending to the book emotionally moving.
Rémy is the generic gallant hero found so often in women’s fiction it’s almost cliché—but I liked him anyway. The Catholic priest is similarly standard, but again, I liked him anyway. To use another cliché: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Eva’s mother was underdeveloped. Though her reactions to the circumstances were realistic, her behavior lacked cohesion, feeling…stringy. I can’t think of a better word. Toward the end, I wished the author had spent more time demonstrating the mother’s true feelings directly, instead of Eva hearing them by second-hand report.
The plot begins with the Nazi’s arrests, slows briefly while Eva establishes herself as a forger, but speeds up again toward the end when the conflict and drama intensify. I will admit I didn’t see the twist coming, but the author should have included more hints. I suspected someone else, and there wasn’t any reason to suspect the real betrayer. The personality change in the betrayer was too dramatic, too quick. Overall, the plot was well-rounded with enough ups and downs to keep me reading.
Harmel’s prose is simplistic but clear. Nothing to swoon over, but it gets the job done.
I never tire of reading WWII fiction. The conflict is a treasure trove of stories, and I’m sure we’ve barely scratched the surface. The heroism and self-sacrifice of that age inspire me. Sometimes wonder how my own generation would handle a similar situation. Not well, I fear, but perhaps I am too cynical.
The Book of Lost Names has everything a reader could want—intrigue, heroism, romance, and of course, a special book. Eva’s emotional turmoil is authentic, and her heroism inspiring. In simple but clear prose, Kristin Harmel adds another perspective to our understanding of one of the most defining conflicts of the twentieth century.
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