“Skeletons at the Feast“, by Chris Bohjalian is based on a Prussian diary, and is an intense novel, filled with historical fact, within the pages of fiction. It is a poignant, harsh, realistic, descriptive, and an inspirational novel, depicting the last year of World War II, as seen from varying unique perspectives of those who are trying to flee the Germans, and also flee the Russians, and whose lives come to relate on some level. It isn’t your typical World War II novel, strictly filled with atrocities of the Holocaust, but a book that focuses on Jews, on German citizens and Prussian refugees, and how they try to survive before the Russians take over, and how the war affected them.
The characters appear as different as night and day, yet they have the same goal, to escape their current circumstances. We have a German Jew who managed to escape deportation to a concentration camp by throwing himself off of the train that was taking deportees there, and is now disguised as an SS officer; a Prussian aristocratic family who is holding a Scottish Prisoner of War (POW), and two women inside a concentration camp who are witnessing horrific atrocities. The various characters eventually blend together in their transitions and journeys to avoid the Russians and/or Germans, and no matter how minute, they do manage to relate to each other, as each one is a piece of the whole in the weaving of the tapestry.
Anna is one of the main characters, and she falls in love with the Scottish POW. We see how she begins to view things, slowly, in new perspectives, and her image of Hitler changes, and we see how Callum, the Scottish POW views the war from an allied view point, and from that of a POW. Anna’s mother admires Hitler immensely, meanwhile her father and two brothers, are ordered into the German Army. Bohjalian manages to bring insight to mother and daughter, as they begin to grasp the intensity and reality of what is happening, as they cross paths with labor camp victims, as their expectations and visions are diminished with realizations they don’t want to face. There is Uri the Jew, trying to survive within the confines of Nazi Germany, yet he manages to help, and save, some Germans along the way.
Lives intertwine, compassion illuminates within the diversity and confines of war, and some of the characters are left wondering how they believed what they did, how could they not see what was happening, why didn’t they see the realities? So many questions are asked, but there is no clear answer, and they feel the burden of guilt begin to weigh on them. What is right, what is wrong, the lines are blurred.
Denial played a big role during World War II, and many could not fathom and believe all that they were hearing, or they were in denial and didn’t want to comprehend that the Nazis could be committing all of the murders, atrocities and exterminations that the radio news and grapevine stories stated were occurring. Their Germany was civilized and filled with arts and culture, their Germany would never stoop to the tactics they were hearing about. Their Germany was about to fall, and they slowly began to understand the severity of the situation.
I don’t want to go into the depth of the story line , as I feel you need to read “Skeletons at the Feast” for yourself in order to understand the intensity of the situation thrust upon the characters. They were the defeated, the vanquished, striving for survival, unable to handle their circumstance in an organized manner, as they fled westward.
Bohjalian has a deep sense of time and place, and an strong insight into the historical events that took place during World War II. From the atrocities of the Holocaust, to the Russian occupation about to unfold, he brings us a story of people on the edge of life, people fleeing, fleeing in fear, frenzied, in denial, not able to grasp the complexities of their circumstances, people similar to those I read about in Irene Nemirovsky’s masterpiece of a novel, “Suite Francaise“, French people in a panic, not knowing who to trust, where to turn, where to run, how to act, how to flee. Bohjalian manages to encapsulate all of that and so much more into his masterful writing.
Bohjalian has brought us a novel on a grand historical scale, in “Skeletons at the Feast“. He is brilliant with his word visuals, and our senses are heightened throughout each page. The novel is riveting, intriguing, compelling, brutal and harsh, yet there are the moments of love, humanity and inspiration, and the moments of clarity, within the disbelief, for the characters. There were times when certain things were beyond their control, and when survival becomes a prime force in their actions. Some might differ with this opinion, and to be sure, I am certain there are those who will disagree. But, for me, the message was extremely clear, and the metaphor was strong and illuminating…how war affects everyone…no matter who they are…and how man’s humanity and kindness can survive under adverse conditions…through all the horrors set before him…and how humankind can react with acts of kindness purely for the sake of helping another, selflessly, no matter their race or religion, and no matter if they give their life up for another. Redemption and illumination, love and war, violence and compassion, time and place, are all a part of the epic tapestry. One must read each line carefully, and take in each word with thoughtfulness, pondering the circumstances in the lives before them on the pages, as the war affects everyone involved. Once a person has done that, they will then begin to understand the depths to which Chris Bohjalian has written a magnificent and historical novel, and an extremely incredible and overwhelming story in “Skeletons at the Feast“. His message is timeless, and could apply to certain circumstances occurring in the world, currently.
This is my second reading of this gripping novel. I read it two years ago, and have just now finished reading it, again, for a book club discussion.