One Book Pick: ‘The Book of Lost Names’
The Book of Lost Names
by Kristin Harmel (Gallery Books)
The backdrop to Kristin Harmel’s latest novel is war-torn France; its backbone is the heroism of ordinary people during times of undue duress.
In Eva Traube, her protagonist, Harmel has limned a rich portrait of a Jewish woman who becomes involved in a War World II underground operation that relied on the creation of fake identifications and other official documents to smuggle Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied France and to aid Resistance efforts.
The true accounts of the successful use of forgery by anti-fascists is fascinating and fertile ground for exploration. In the sure hands of Harmel, who has dealt with the Holocaust in earlier works of fiction, readers learn how the confluence of ingenuity and courage saved lives. In The Book of Lost Names, they also receive the painful reminder that Nazis looted more than artwork, heirlooms and books: They stole whole identities, particularly those of children forced to give up their names and religion in exchange for survival.
Harmel, a former magazine reporter, has a journalist’s eye for details, and she captures small-town life in the southern French countryside in which Eva and her cohorts carry out their missions. The local baker and bookstore proprietress play important cameo roles. The author’s knack for building tension makes the novel a page-turner.
Where Harmel falters is in her propensity for melodrama and narrative coincidences that strain credulity. One also wishes that she had employed more flash-forwards—passages in which Eva reflects on a life of quiet valor—to round out her story.
Still, The Book of Lost Names is a worthy contribution to the canon of Holocaust literature, and readers are well served by its message that every individual has the potential to lead a righteous life.
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