Nazi Germany isn't exactly a novel setting for historical fiction, even when it's a multi-generational novel like this one. It's difficult for a book to offer a new spin on this theme, but Huston succeeds, with a tale narrated in the first person by four successive generations of one family. The book opens in California in 2004 with 6 year old Sol, who the jacket aptly describes as "a gifted, terrifying child whose mother believes he is destined for greatness."
"I'm awake.Make no mistake, though; little Sol is not one of those cute, bright little tykes. Nor is he just a spoiled, arrogant little prince of a boy (though he is that, too). This is a kid with a horrifying fascination with the Iraq war -- specifically, with the photos of mutilated corpses and Abu Ghraib prisoners he Googles compulsively, and finds precociously arousing. (Interesting that his stay-at-home mom Tessa, who prides herself on how well childproofed their home is -- "all the electrical outlets are covered ... There are soft plastic rounded covers added to every right-angle table and counter ... Also the burners to the stove have a special blocking mechanism ... Even the toilet is childproofed" -- has failed to notice this interest.) Father Randall occasionally makes a half-hearted effort to tone down Tessa's coddling, but has a two-hour commute to his job building warrior robots for the military-industrial complex, and seems disengaged even when he's technically present. Over his objections, Tessa schedules a surgery to remove the birthmark Randall, his grandmother, and Sol all share; in Sol's case, it's on his left temple.
Like flicking on a switch and flooding a room with light.
Snapping out of sleep, clicking into wakefulness, a perfectly functioning mind and body, six years old and a genius, first thought every morning when I wake up. ...
A sunny Sunday sun sun sun sun king Sol Solly Solomon
I'm like sunlight, all-powerful, instantaneous and invisible, flowing effortlessly into the darkest corners of the universe
capable at six of seeing illuminating understanding everything"
Even Sol's omniscience, however, has its limits, which emerge when Randall's work takes him to Munich. By sheer force of will, his mother Sadie turns the trip into a four-generation odyssey -- Sol, Randall and Tessa, Sadie herself, and Sadie's mother G.G., nee Erra (or is she?) -- to visit G.G.'s sister Greta, who is reportedly dying.
His portion of the story ends on an ambiguous note in Munich, and we rewind to Randall's boyhood in New York City in the early 1980s. His home life is very different from Sol's; father Aron is a not-very-successful playwright and his primary caregiver, while it's Sadie who's the driven breadwinner, a teacher and historian specializing in the Aryanization of Europe during WWII. Her research takes the family from Manhattan to Haifa, where Randall becomes a whiz at Hebrew (at least, until an innocent language question prompts his tutor to quit in disgust), and gains a different perspective on Israel's history through a friendship of sorts with a Palestinian classmate.
From here, we go back still further to Toronto, circa 1962, where the lumpen young Sadie is fostered with her grandparents while single mother G.G./ Erra/ Kristina (as she is called here) leads the marginal, bohemian life of a not-yet-successful singer. The elder Kriswatys are cold and Spartan, and Sadie longs for the day when her mother will spirit her off to New York for good. The day eventually comes, but not without its share of surprises and questions.
Finally, we arrive in 1944 Munich, where 6 year old Kristina lives a mostly-unremarkable life with her parents and older siblings, Lothar and Greta, until, in a squabble over a favorite doll, Greta blurts out a shocking accusation. She apologizes and takes it back the next day, but still Kristina wonders -- especially when, a few months after Lothar is killed on the Russian front, their parents bring 10 year old Johann home, claiming that he's a war orphan in need of a new home. Johann, however, tells a different story.
All in all, this is a fascinating book. I loved the metaphor of the birthmark all four of the narrators share (though Sadie's is hidden and, she's always thought, hugely shameful). The ideas about how our families and our history shape who we are are excellent fodder for rumination (one of my favorite pastimes, in case that's not yet obvious). Huston also introduced an aspect of the war I wasn't previously familiar with, though this is an integral part of the story, and I don't want to spoil the surprise by mentioning it. Definitely one to read; if you can force yourself to keep going even when Sol's portion makes you squirm, it will be worth your while.