Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: The Year is '42 by Nella Bielski

Title: The Year is '42
Author: Nella Bielski
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Pantheon
Published: 2004
Pages: 224

Rating: 3 out of 10

It didn't take long to discover with great certainty how much of a disappointment this book was going to be. The stilted descriptions, the crazily unstructured plot, and most of all, the author's writing style (or perhaps it was the translation?).
A glance at the inside cover had intrigued me - it contained some of my favorite plot elements. World War II, spies, Paris, society... The author even dropped Coco Chanel's name.
Within just a few pages, however, I couldn't help but choose another book off my library pile to read. Yes, I have a vow to finish every book... But despite this one being relatively brief, I had to force myself to reach the last page.

Immediately after starting this odd book, I noticed the jolting, painful writing. For some reason, the author does not seem to be aware of quotation marks. They were invented for a reason - why does she think she doesn't need them?
Whatever the reason for her pointedly refusing to include one single quotation mark in the entire book, it does not work.
And since there is a lot of dialogue, it was not only extremely annoying, but also confusing and a large barrier between the characters and the reader.
For instance, this part of the book:

"...places the volume of Goethe on the table in front of her. It can't be true! For a long time father has dreamt of finding this edition of Werther! She speaks the words slowly..."

The only indication of a difference between dialogue and narrative is the change of tense. An entire novel of this was beyond tedious.

Also, many, many things in the book simply do not seem to go across to the reader. Was I missing something?
For example, when Hans and Karl suddenly say "Look!" (without quotation marks, though), and point to a Jewish man walking down the street. Why did they do this? Shock? Anger? Fear? It has nothing to do with their conversation, or anything in the story at the moment.
It is a scattered gathering of little things such as this that often made me feel as if I was the third person visiting two lifelong best friends. Things they say, I do not understand or appreciate. And as a reader, this is not a good feeling to have about characters.

The characters themselves were set up to be something grand - a German man residing in Paris who is regarded as a kind of socialite star, his beautiful lover, a spy involved in the French Resistance...
And yet, none of them could hold my interest.
They all remained grounded firmly in the pages of the book, never taking on a life of their own. In fact, quite the opposite.

The plot itself was also pretty much nonexistent. Some authors can pull off this casual wandering through the story, but Bielski cannot. I would find it hard to describe the plot line of this book to anyone who asked, save that it took place in Paris, 1942.

The name dropping on the inside cover? Don't be pulled in... Coco Chanel does not make so much as one appearance in the book, her name is simply mentioned once and that is that.

The only reason that this book is getting 3 stars instead of 2, or perhaps 1, is because I actually liked the book a bit toward the end.
Did the characters grow more lovable? No.
Actually, they disappeared.

The author switches scenes and pulls out attention to another scene entirely. The reason cannot, like many astounding "creative" things she does, be grasped.
But maybe she should have stuck with these characters the entire time, because I liked them, and their stories, much better.
A sorrowful old man who used to play the violin falls in love with a beautiful young opera singer, and a loving daughter seeks to take care of him amidst the terrors of being a Jew in 1942. When her father's soprano love is killed during a Jewish roundup, she tells him that she is simply off singing in another city, and that the war is over.
It is a bittersweet, heartfelt story that I found much more realistic than the first. I can't exactly call it well-written: the writing is simply too jarring.
And, of course, an author can't just introduce completely new characters in the middle of the book for no reason, good characters or bad.

It turned out that the characters did have a relation to the story - the daughter treats Karl (the previous main character) for a rash.
I wonder where the author got this plot from... A dream, perhaps? It is certainly scattered and bizarre enough to be a possibility, but not in a good way.

All in all, this is quite a bad story. I will not be reading anymore from this author.