Sarah Blake is the author of the novels Grange House, and The Postmistress, a New York Times Bestseller and winner of South Africa's Boeke Prize.
Many years ago, I heard Susanna Moore read from her terrifying novel In the Cut. I was riveted by her voice as slowly, steadily, and with unflinching surety, she read aloud the snuffing of a character’s life. As she neared the end, the entire bookstore forgot to breathe. Moore, performing a high wire act if ever there was one, led us coolly but with great sympathy into a world of darkness.
She was, that night, our Beatrice into Hell, and her new novel, The Life of Objects, offers another Beatrice leading us into the specific and largely untold story of the hell endured by the civilian German population caught in World War II. You may think you’ve read all there is to read about this war, but you will not have read anything like this.
“My name is Beatrice Adelaide Palmer,” the novel begins. “I was born in 1921 in Ballycarra, County Mayo, the only child of Elizabeth Givens and Morris Palmer of Palmerston.” Like Jane Eyre, or the heroines of Dickens or Trollope (whom this Beatrice reads avidly), Beatrice Palmer yearns past the borders of her life, into a wider world than her Irish village. And when a beautiful Countess notices Beatrice’s lace handiwork at a ball, and proposes to whisk her away to Berlin to visit her friends the Metzenburgs, possessed of a great house and “the best manners in Europe,” it seems this Beatrice has been touched by fortune. The year is 1938.
When the Countess and Beatrice arrive in Berlin, they discover that the Metzenburgs are in flight to their estate in the country, and though Beatrice is free to return to Ireland, she chooses to join the household as a lacemaker. She stays with them through the war’s beginnings, its long years, and its destructive end—when the Russian Army, murderous, vengeful, and random in its cruel attention, sweeps through the countryside.
Like A Woman in Berlin, this novel describes the horror of being caught in the web of indifferent historical forces. But what is new here, and the source of its power, is the ignorance and simplicity of its young narrator. Beatrice’s unsentimental, precise account of what happens in the last days of the war renders the horrible even more unfathomable. We know with the hindsight of history what it means when a beloved schoolteacher has vanished, or when an American soldier appears in the woods. But in Beatrice’s telling, she does not. And so the war begins to seem like something out of one of Grimm’s horrors. With the force of a folktale, The Life of Objects got me in its grip and has not let me go.
“I find this book exhilarating—truly exciting, new, everything good—the people, the clothes, the food: every word.” —Joan Didion
“This is a deceptively simple novel that manages that uncanny trick of great fiction: turning the familiar (ambitious provincial girl, World War II, glamorous aristocrats) into a thrilling, enchanting story you’ve never encountered before. Imagine Downton Abbey crossed with In the Garden of Beasts as fashioned by a literary master at the peak of her powers.” —Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers
“In The Life of Objects, Susanna Moore tells the story of a young woman’s initiation into the worlds of beauty, suffering, cynicism, and grace. What astounds me about this work is its ability to attend with equal fidelity to the quiet nuances of self-discovery and the deceptions and depravities of World War II. This is a lyrical and courageous book.” —Tracy K. Smith, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry
“The Life of Objects isn’t long but it gives the full sweep of the Nazi reign and the Soviet occupation. Its details are so convincing, it reads like a memoir not a novel—a magnificent achievement.” —Edmund White
“I hadn’t realized that the lives led by people in the camps had a shadow existence outside the fences, that people were constantly faced with the chance to step one way or the other so that the person next to them would be chosen instead, and that forever after they had to bear their choice. Treachery one wants to call it, but it isn’t so simple. Some of the details and evocations of the house and the landscape and the habits of the connoisseur and the self are so striking that at times I had the feeling I was reading a memoir, something like Edmund Gosse, where the writer is trying to keep his head among belligerent circumstances, or, on the other hand, fiction like Samuel Butler’s. The writing in places is close to a standard that is nearly flawless. So much can happen in a sentence, by such slight (to the reader) but rigorous and elegant means. I nearly gasped at some parts. And there is something gravely and humanly funny about others.” —Alec Wilkinson, author of The Ice Balloon
“The Life of Objects is absolutely gripping in the precision of its wartime narrative, and chilling in its evocation of a fidelity to the sensuality of this world in the face of the most deeply cynical of the world’s capacities. This extraordinary novel speaks to class, emigration and tragedy in our time as devastatingly as Buddenbrooks spoke to Thomas Mann’s own young century.” —Susan Wheeler, winner of the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Letters
“A marvelous book, devastating in its simplicity. It’s a beautifully controlled examination of a life stripped, like a body in wartime, of inessentials. I love the fact that kindness—though not sentimentality—turns out to be an essential. But for me the heart of the matter is Moore’s language: as strong as plainchant, and as beautiful.” —Nicola Griffith, author of The Blue Place and Ammonite