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Emuna Elon, House on endless waters (#BookReview)

September 17, 2020

Book coverI’ve said before that I’m surprised by how many takes there can be on World War II, and on the Holocaust, in particular – and once again I’m here with another such story, Emuna Elon’s House on endless waters. I hadn’t heard of Elon before but, according to Wikipedia, she’s an Israeli author, journalist, and women’s rights activist. Her first novel translated into English, If you awaken love, is about life on the West Bank, where she lived for many years.

House on endless waters, however, is historical fiction – or, at least, one of those novels which flips between the present and the past. It tells the story of successful Israeli author Yoel Blum who had been told by his late mother to never go to Amsterdam, from which they’d emigrated. However, the time comes when the middle-aged and internationally successful Blum is urged to Amsterdam by his literary agent to promote his latest Dutch-translated novel. While there, he and his wife visit the Jewish Historical Museum, and here, in a little looping video, he catches an image of his mother Sonia in Amsterdam during the war. Next to her is a man holding a little girl, his sister Nettie, but the baby she is carrying is not he! Who is this baby, and where was he?

Yoel returns to Israel, but, after obtaining the incomplete information his sister is able to provide (which is not divulged to the reader), he goes back to Amsterdam, alone, to research his past and write a novel about it. The result is one of those novels within a novel, as we follow Yoel’s journey alongside reading the story he is writing as he uncovers his family’s – and his – past. How much is “true” and how much Yoel imagines is not the point. We are carried along in the horrors of war-time Amsterdam, in stories of decent hardworking people’s disbelief that life could change so horribly so quickly, of Jewish collaborators, of the hidden children, of the most difficult choices people have to make. Elon conveys viscerally the shock felt by Jewish citizenry as one by one their rights are removed and as the foundations of their lives – something they thought immutable in such a place as Holland – crumble.

Much of this story has been told before. Anne Frank comes to mind of course, and many novels have dealt with the ways in which Jewish people were gradually ostracised and betrayed by their own society (the yellow stars, the loss of jobs, the resumption of homes, the rounding up, the transporting to concentration camps, and so on). What makes this one a little different – at least in my reading to date – is its exploration of the hidden child phenomenon, within a larger story of collaboration, betrayal, resistance and difficult choices.

The important thing, however, is less this difference than that it is a deeply absorbing read. Elon’s ability to manage her two story threads, and maintain our interest in both, speaks to a practised, skilled writer. There is no rigid chapter by chapter alternating of stories. Rather, as Yoel becomes increasingly invested in the life of his mother, Elon starts to blend the two stories, with Yoel sometimes feeling himself in both stories at once. As his sense of self becomes increasingly discombobulated, the line between past and present starts to blur:

Yoel would have liked to write about the architectural significance of Amsterdam, about the implication behind the labor invested in the rows of tiny reddish bricks, about the stylized cornices above the windows and the artistic embellishments that adorn every single building. But early the next morning, Sonia is walking along the street, and across the road the police are evicting a Jewish family from their beautiful art-nouveau-design house. The members of the banished family are trying to walk proudly to the truck that has come to take them away …

For Yoel, unlike the tourists he sees blithely enjoying the sun and culture of Amsterdam, “the past is still here” and it begins to overwhelm him.

Why a story-within-a-story?

This bring me to the question of why would Elon use the story-within-a-story-device? I can think of three reasons, the most obvious being that it draws the reader into the story, engaging us in its unravelling along with the protagonist. Secondly, in this case, it also mirrors how many children of the Holocaust generation didn’t know their parents’ stories – weren’t told them – and therefore had to work out those stories piece by piece. Finally, also in this case, it enables Elon to expose the personal development of her narrator, Yoel, who is initially revealed to be decent but emotionally remote. Very early in the novel, we learn this about him:

Perhaps the day will come when he’ll even train himself to live, a day when he will walk the earth like everyone else without being overcome by the thought that in fact it’s odd , even ridiculous to be a human being …

He is, says his wife, “scared of living”. This novel, then, is partly about identity. Yoel didn’t know his past but it’s clear that the traumas of that past had unconsciously impacted him, as we now know they do. Slowly, as he comes to understand who he is, he also starts to live, to be an engaged human being.

Jan Toorop, The Sea at Katwijk, 1887 (Public Domain)

There is much to this book, with Elon and her novelist Yoel drawing on art and music to reflect both Holland’s cultural achievements and its darker side. A motif running through the book is a stolen work of art – Jan Toorop’s The Sea at Katwijk – that had belonged to Sonia’s friends, Anouk and Martin, who are implicated in what happens. Martin suggests to Sonia that the painting is more about Toorop – “every painter evidently knows only how to depict himself” – than place. However, Sonia also sees herself in it: “there she is in black, there in red, there she is borne from wave to wave, moving in the infinite.” For Yoel, this sea “is a huge finite vessel containing infinite waters”. All this contributes to the novel’s message, one which Yoel finally realises Sonia was telling him:

Whatever was, was. Those waters have already flowed onward.

The trick is to know when to fight those waters, and when to let your “heart encounter the heart of the sea” and be at peace.

House on endless waters came to me out of the blue, but what a find. A Holocaust novel, it contains the horrors of that time but is also imbued with a generous, philosophical spirit that, without excusing atrocity, recognises the humanity of those who made selfish decisions and those who had to live with them. We need perspectives like this.

Emuna Elon
House on endless waters
Translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020 (Orig. ed. 2016)
309pp.
ISBN: 9781760877255

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

20 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2020 10:14

    A compelling review Sue. I was sent this for review but hadn’t yet gotten to it. Yours is the second review I’ve read on it and both were favourable. Thanks.

  2. Sara Dowse. permalink
    September 17, 2020 10:48

    Does sound a wonderful novel. Thanks for the tip and the insightful review, WG. I should say also that the ‘story within a story’ has been used in Jewish – and least Ashkenazi – literature often. What seems intriguing about its use in this book is how deftly it is worked into the protagonist’s own psychological trajectory.

    • September 17, 2020 15:24

      Thanks Sara. I thought of you as I was writing this post.

      And yes, that is a significant part of why I liked that technique’s use in this book – it wasn’t just us joining him on his path to discovery but his own personal development (or psychological trajectory as you put it so well.)

  3. September 17, 2020 11:32

    I was offered this too, but since the publication of That Book, I have been very wary of fictionalisations of the Holocaust, and now wait until a reviewer I trust has read them first. (So, this one goes onto the wishlist).

    Earlier this year, I read a memoir about one of these hidden children in Holland. The book was featured at Adelaide Writers Week and I was intrigued because the Netherlands seem to me, as a tourist there, to be a place with hidden historical depths. Whatever has been the case in previous years, only now (with honourable exceptions) are we in Australia starting to come across books about their experience of the world wars. I think I would probably be one of many who viewed the country through the prism of tulips and artworks.

    The memoir I read has a different ‘take’ on the situation too, because it traces the quest of a descendant to find out why there was a falling out between a foster family and the hidden child. (See
    https://anzlitlovers.com/2020/02/05/the-cut-out-girl-by-bart-van-es/)

    BTW Who’s the translator? I like to keep track of who the good translators are, because it can make such a big difference to enjoyment of the novel.

    • September 17, 2020 12:47

      Thanks Lisa … the translators are in the book details at the bottom of the post, and I’ve also tagged them. I put them in those two places, because I think it’s important to identify them, but I don’t put them in the post title, because I like if possible to keep post titles short! (Not that I achieve that with Monday Musings!)

      The translation feels very good to me – there’s a lovely rhythmic flow to the language.

      I think there are many excellent fictionalisations of the Holocaust, so I’m not as wary as you are I think. And yes, you are right about the Netherlands having hidden depths. I was aware of it I think before my travels there partly because of Anne Frank’s diary, and also because my father’s sister married a Dutchman who was a child during the war. Since then, my reading group started and one of our member’s parents were in the Dutch resistance which has always felt really brave to me. Such horrible, vicious times.

      • September 17, 2020 18:18

        *smacks forehead* sorry, I missed the translation info which is really stupid of me because that’s where I put mine too.
        I have just read a book with a really terrible translation (which didn’t quite succeed in ruining the book) so I really appreciate the good ones…

        • September 17, 2020 19:42

          Haha Lisa….. Don’t worry, we all do things like this in our hurry to keep up with all our blog reading.

  4. Claire Louisa permalink
    September 17, 2020 14:49

    Fabulous review

  5. Sara Dowse permalink
    September 17, 2020 15:05

    For some reason my earlier comment didn’t connect – maybe I forgot to press the button! It’s been like that these days. Anyway, wanted to thank you for yet another insightful review and for the tip. Elon’s novel sounds wonderful and I will certainly be looking for it.

    Also wanted to say that the ‘story in a story’ has been a feature of Jewish – at least Askenazi – literature for a while. But what seems intriguing about this book is how you say Elon has adapted it, deftly blending the narratives so that the story in the past becomes integral to the protagonist’s own psychological development, taking it that significant step forward.

    • September 17, 2020 15:45

      It did come through Sara as you may have seen by now – and I have responded. I was interested in your comment about that technique being a feature of Askenazi literature. Not sure why there are sometimes these conniptions.

      Anyhow, I’d love to hear what you think if you do get to read it.

      • Sara Dowse permalink
        September 17, 2020 17:51

        Yes, I see it got up there now. Weird. Since my last comment i did find the book on Booktopia but wasn’t able to order it either, as it seems their system thought I was a robot. Finally was able to sort it out and it’s coming my way eventually, as Australia Post has advised. While I was at it I tried linking my Qantas frequent flyer with them, but that didn’t work either, as my membership number was rejected. Checked my number with Qantas and it was right. Tried to ring Booktopia but all lines were busy. Ended saying what the hell, I can’t go anywhere either. As said, it’s been that sort of day.

        • September 17, 2020 19:35

          Oh I love this Sara! Sorry! But, oh dear, you must have spent done frustrating times on the phone today.

          I didn’t know about linking the Frequent Flyer card to Booktopia.

          Anyhow I’m really interested to hear what your novelist’s mind thinks about how this book works.

  6. Sara Dowse permalink
    September 18, 2020 10:32

    Crazy, wasn’t it? Will get back after reading Elon.

  7. September 20, 2020 15:07

    You lost me at Historical Fiction. Well not really, you lost me at ‘West Bank’ – part of Palestine illegally occupied by the Israelis. I think the Holocaust was horrible enough without anyone making up stories about it.

    • September 20, 2020 15:44

      Yes, I knew I’d lose you there, Bill.

      But, here’s the thing, I think stories about the Holocaust – as about what happened to Indigenous Australians, here for example – are important for keeping these atrocities known (and one would love to think to keep them from happening again.) That deadman dance, after all, is historical fiction – unlike Too much lip which is contemporary fiction. Just saying!!

    • September 20, 2020 15:48

      BTW, Yes, I wondered about the West Bank, and what her politics might be – but it’s not specifically relevant to this Holocaust-focused novel.

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