By Jeffrey Lewis
Haus Publishing – £12.99
We were up late that night in the inn, quietly with the lights out. Holly couldn’t sleep. Se felt, she said, like a stranger to herself. ”It started sometime in the carols. I though: listen, they singing to me with Christian love? Is this the reality Jews are blind to, that could convert a soul on the spot? I must be weak, I thought. I hear the lovely voices of children, and then.. all I could hear was a lot of my own voice, like static. Telling me to listen. All these words. The music! I wanted to live in the music. But just then I couldn’t.
Initially attracted by the book’s title, these 240 pages are a rather cyclonic read, which, to all intents and inherently jarring purposes, is intense and simultaneously intriguing.
Indeed, throughout, Berlin Cantata, Jeffrey Lewis bequeaths the reader with quite a bit to think about as well as dissect – by way of an array of heterogeneous voices. All of whom are fundamentally fraught and forthright in their own way. All of whom appear haunted by history; which partially explains their search for acute (subliminal) redemption.
For instance, Holly Anholt: ”Everything was stacked high as if you were getting something wholesale, empty suitcases, pairs of shoes, Zyklon B cans, hair. Now there would be a punishment, a just retribution, to have to spend your life counting up every single hair, and if you make one mistake, if you miss one hair, you have to start over. I thought such things. I was alone. And this too: if work can’t make you free, what can? Only God’s grace? Only love? Only luck? (‘Journey’).
There is so much psychologically gruesome information packed into the above few lines, it’s hard knowing where to begin, where to start assimilating. Let alone come to terms with.
It is this veritable coming to terms with which keeps the reader going, yet somewhat vexed. Curious, yet simultaneously perplexed – in an altogether good way might I add.
As the author of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger, Lee Smith, has since said: ”Jeffrey Lewis has written a stunning novel, as deep and intriguing as the city itself. The varied cast of characters tell their own stories as they wind their tortured and tortuous way through the dark past toward some kind of understanding, if not atonement.”