The background: Sarah Wildman, the author, has always known her grandfather as a happy go lucky man, a successful doctor who escaped to America with his family from Vienna in 1938. It isn’t until his death that she discovers he left his girlfriend behind. Wildman’s quest is to discover what happened to this girlfriend, Valy. She’s starting a dangerous journey because there’s quickly the suspicion her grandfather isn’t going to come out of this very well. Among his possessions Wildman finds a number of letters from Valy to her grandfather, all of them pleading with him to help her get out of Nazi occupied Europe, all of which apparently fall on deaf ears.
There can be no question that it is among the most admirable and potentially beautiful challenges to bring back to life someone who died in the holocaust. And early in the book you share Wildman’s longing to bring Valy back to life. The first problem Wildman faces is Valy’s letters themselves. They aren’t very revealing. She tends to repeat herself and every letter is like a photocopy of the last. She continually reaffirms her love but never quite succeeds in bringing herself or her predicament to life in these letters. They’re strangely flat. Perhaps this is due to her fear of censorship, the enormous stress she was under but as personal documents they conceal more than they tell. It’s like Valy is already a ghost.
There must have come a moment in her research, just as there comes a moment while reading this, when Wildman realised she only had fragments of a story rather than a story itself – that all her admirable efforts to hew a narrative from the letters she found among her grandfather’s things were going to be frustrated by a lack of material. That basically she was attempting to tell a story about the lack of any story. You feel she should have grasped the irony of this and then structured the book around this discovery. Instead she continues to write it as a treasure trail narrative – but the treasure has long ceased to exist as a possibility and so the book becomes increasingly lacking in focus and rambling. By the end of the book Vara becomes, if anything, even more mysterious.