Top critical review
100 people found this helpful
"She is made of the thinnest eggshell, her toughness a veneer. . ." (2.5 stars)
on May 13, 2011
That is how Janusz describes his wife Silvana as he embraces her in a scene about two-thirds through this book, and it seems to be the first insightful thing he thinks about her. I chose this book from the Vine program because it sounded like a wonderful, moving premise for a novel, but I was disappointed. I expected it to be sad, but I also expected to feel for and empathize with characters who had been through so much. I found I just couldn't care about Janusz and Silvana; when they first meet as teenagers, they are just a couple of horny kids, feeling an instant physical attraction and apparently not much else. Silvana comes from a miserable, dysfunctional peasant family and seems motivated only by the desire to escape; Janusz seems to ask her to marry him out of duty, suggesting perhaps he's gotten her pregnant. Either way, I didn't feel like I knew the characters - what were their likes, dislikes, dreams, motivations? They seemed very young and unformed, understandably so, but the love they shared did not feel strong enough to last through six years of war.
I agree with another reviewer here who noted that Janusz' time spent wandering around Europe before finally getting to England seems far-fetched. Janusz seems quite amenable to staying put wherever he lands and sitting out the war - first the goose woman's cottage, then Helene's parents' farm - he seems quite weak and easily lead and just goes along. Granted, his life has been totally turned upside down, but I don't get the impression he's burning to fight for his country, or to see his wife and child again, or to do much of anything, except have an affair with Helene.
Silvana has a much rougher time (women in war often do), but she seems very shallow and unformed as well, basically a hollow shell doing whatever she's told by Hanka, then Gregor, then Janusz, then Tony . . . She and her son Aurek endure a much harsher deprivation in the forests of Poland, but something about that also didn't ring true for me. It went on way too long and became boring, and it seemed uneven - they stay for months with one farmer, then the Germans are coming and they must move on; then they wander a day and Gregor finds them and brings them into his dubious fold; next time they're abandoned they wander for days and days and see no sign of life - but then a farmer finds them near death. A while later, Gregor comes back into the picture and I thought, how come they didn't find Gregor or this farmer while they were wandering lost in apparently the same vicinity? Are these the densest, deepest, most desolate woods ever or the forest from "Midsummer Night's Dream", with characters constantly wandering on and off stage? It just seemed inconsistent. First Silvana is tough and independent, hunting and skinning animals with Gregor, and he tells her she'd be perfect for the Resistance - but when she and Aurek are alone again, they're eating whatever they find but almost starving. She forgot how to trap and hunt? Again, it seemed inconsistent.
I felt like I never got to know Janusz or Silvana, and I don't think they knew each other. They were so secretive with each other; I couldn't help thinking real lovers/partners would eventually share and talk about what they'd endured, seen, learned about themselves; not all at once, of course, but in dribs and drabs. Janusz and Silvana lived in the same house but seemed to rarely speak with or to each other; there seems to be no REAL talking until the last five pages. I frankly didn't care by that point; it just reinforced for me the feeling that here were two people who didn't have much in common to begin with - I couldn't help feeling sorry for Janusz for missing out on his chance with Helene! Finally, the plot twist at the end of the book with Tony (no spoilers, I promise), really seemed out of left field and I agree with another reviewer here, at that point the story seemed to descend into melodrama. If I didn't have to write a review of this book for the Vine program, I probably wouldn't have finished it.
I know some readers will find this a satisfying story of survival and "primal maternal love" as the back cover says, and I did find several of the scenes between Silvana and Aurek, and between Janusz and Aurek touching and almost painful; they wanted so much to be a family again. I also feel the author provided a somewhat interesting, if dreary, story of life in post-war Britain; but the love story between Silvana and Janusz just didn't work for me, or it was a case of too little, too late. I pitied the main characters but just couldn't like or care much about them, so I didn't like the book as much as I might have and rated it accordingly.