Friday, December 4, 2020

The Book of Lost Names, a Novel by Kristin Harmel

I don't usually review adult novels on this blog, with the exception of mysteries, which are my guilty pleasure, but I found the description of this book intriguing enough to get it from the library. The author, Kristin Harmel, has written a number of books set in WWII and I suspect I will be reading more of them. The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the French Resistance, and the artistically talented people who used their skills to forge life-saving documents. 

It's 2005, and 86-year-old Eva Taube Abrams is still working in a Winter Park, Florida library when she reads an article about a German librarian, Otto Kühn, who is trying to return books that were looted by the Nazis towards the end of WWII to their rightful owners, or at least their families. What catches Eva's eye is a picture of a book called Epitres et Evangiles, a book she hasn't seen in over sixty years. She immediately makes a plane reservation to fly to Berlin and find Otto Kühn to get her book back.

Flashback to July 1942. The Nazi occupation of France has brought out a lot of anti-Semitism among the French, and now roundups of Jews are starting. Before her father is taken away by the Nazis, he tells Eva to visit his employer who will provide her with forged documents he has already paid for. But Monsieur Goujon only gives her all the materials she needs to forge her own documents. 

The forgeries, though not perfect, work and before long, Eva and her mother are on their way to Aurignon,  a small village in France's free zone. It doesn't take long for Eva's papers to be recognized as forgeries, but luckily it is by a member of the French Resistance. Soon, she finds herself in a secret library within the town's Catholic church, working with fellow forger Rémy Duchamp and creating documents for fleeing Jews and RAF pilots who need to get back to Britain.  

But when it came to forging documents for unaccompanied escaping Jewish children, Eva is adamant about preserving their real identity somehow. That way, if they survive the war, they can know who they really are. At first, Rémy is just as adamant about not keeping a record, but, afraid of losing Eva's forging talents, he works up a code that allows the names of the children to be hidden in a book called Epitres et Evangiles

There is definitely an attraction between Eva and Rémy, though neither acts on it, and Eva believes he was killed after the Aurignon resistance is betrayed. 

I can't say I was emotionally swept up in The Book of Lost Names, but I certainly did enjoy reading it enough that I finished it in one sitting.  It's clear that Hamel has done her research and put together an exciting tale of resistance and survival, and, lost love. It is a story based on a newspaper article in the NY Times about how the Germans were trying to find the owners of books stolen by the Nazis that Harmel read. I always find this slice of reality gives a story a real feeling of authenticity. 

The story goes back and forth between past and present, and one of the things I found interesting is that the present is narrated by older Eva, while there is an omniscient narrator for the past. Eva is such a realistic protagonist. She embodies all the fear, desperation, doubt, and courage of a young women caught in a life and death struggle to save herself and her mother, always believing that her father will one day come back to them. 

Two things I didn't like about this book were 1- Eva's mother, whose bitterness and anger didn't help Eva in her struggle to keep them out of Nazi hands; and 2- a few too many coincidences and close calls that probably wouldn't have happened under Nazi occupation.

Nevertheless, I would still definitely recommend this book for teens and adults.

You can find a reading guide for The Book of Lost Names courtesy of the publisher, Simon & Shuster, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 15+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

2 comments:

  1. I may not get to it soon, but just bought this because I, too, was intrigued by the blurb. Also, I've been slowly reading more books from WWII & like reading of the courage people showed during that time. Thanks, Alex, I'm looking forward to this book!

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  2. This sounds like a great book. I can understand your criticism, as well. I hate when things don't sound "natural" to me. As to the hate towards Nazis, the war has been over for 75 years and there are people who still hate all Germans for it. Even the ones who suffered under the Nazis, as well. :(

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