I grew up in the Hutt Valley with children whose surnames, and often Christian names were so obviously European and therefore foreign, with facial features ever so slightly different from my bog-standard British-derived features, many also musical and artistic. And yet in many ways they were the same as the rest of us Lower Hutt school children.
In later years, I discovered that one or both of the parents of these children came to the Valley after the war, either as children themselves or young adults – Polish, Jewish, Dutch, Yugoslav. I never knew as a child the stories of these families, and really why would I? I never questioned the back story but there was always a curiosity about my fellow classmates. These children would now be around the same age as the author of this novel – early 60s/mid-late 50s – and a good number of them would probably fall into the category of Second Generation Survivors – children born to people who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. It is hard to imagine your entire family wiped out because someone didn’t like what they were, hard to imagine having no grandparents, uncles, aunts because they simply are no more, hard to imagine what it must be like to hear your parent waking in the night from a terrible nightmare. Thank goodness for writers like Kirsten Warner, who through storytelling, can give us some sort of idea.
This novel is not strictly about the Holocaust or about what happened to those taken away to the camps. It is a frame of reference around which this story has been created, and unsurprisingly the make up, the personality, the essence of the central character, Christel, whose Jewish father was a refugee and survivor of the camps. Much like the author’s father, making the author herself a Second Generation. It has been shown that the children of survivors of extreme trauma have that trauma stamped in their own DNA, passed on by their parent(s), making them behave in ways that to someone without such DNA changes may well find difficult to understand, to empathise with, even live with. Aside from survivor’s guilt, Christel also grows up in fear – that one day in Auckland suburbia, the door will be bashed down and the whole family carted away to who knows where; that there are bad people all around her; that there may come a time when there is not enough food. It is against this background that Christel has grown up.
The novel is set primarily in 1990s Auckland, with a regular return to her childhood in 1970s Parnell. She is now married to Ted, has two very young children, and is a producer for a reality TV programme, which is similar to Fair Go or Target. She is also involved in a women’s protest group called Women Against Surplus Plastic (WASP). Hardly surprising that she is very stressed, so stressed that she is really at breaking point. While trying to balance all these high demands, it seems that she is losing her mind. Her imagination begins to work overtime, conjuring up a variety of ways to deal with the stresses in her life – this is so cleverly done, that at times I was sort of caught between what was real and what (patently) wasn’t. She had her own encounters with trauma as a teenager, long buried, and now in her increasingly fragile mental state, her imagination, her coping strategies and the reappearance of a long forgotten person are threatening to bring everything crashing down.
But she is not the child of a Holocaust survivor for nothing! This is also a funny book – always look on the bright side as Eric Idle says. And Christel has a great sense of humour – her boss is the Fat Controller; the women in her WASP group are Rock Star, Celebrity Yoga Teacher, Madonna. There is Car Couple, Karate Man, Artist; her alter ego the Big C; and Milk Bottle Man. For anyone who has grown up in Auckland, or spent long periods living/working in the inner city area, the setting will be very familiar, and no doubt bring about long periods of contemplative nostalgia. From the Parnell Baths, to Cox’s Bay, to the inner city, Remuera Road, Mt Hobson, Newmarket, Parnell.
This is a somewhat exhausting read, with so much going on, such intensity, continuous moving between Christel’s present and her childhood, examining the complicated relationship between her parents, coming to terms with her father’s and hence her own past. But it is also satisfying, clever and rich in its writing, particularly its characters, its unusual and unexpected conclusion. I hope that through writing this novel, Kirsten Warner also got some peace and personal resolution in her own life story as the child of a Holocaust survivor.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
The Sound of Breaking Glass
by Kirsten Warner
Published by Mākaro Press