BOOK REVIEW: Anguish traced in lives lost and hopes of redemption
The Fortunate Ones
Inevitably, this novel’s title signals degrees of suffering and sorrow. The Fortunate Ones begins with a family tragedy, a foreboding of worse to come for the Zimmers in Vienna.
Soon everything they know is threatened as, in the preamble to the Second World War, the 1938 Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany) brings fearful realities. The family must face a dreadful choice; Rose, aged 11 and an unwilling refugee, is dispatched on a Kindertransport to live with surrogate parents in England.
The distress of parting is poignantly and compellingly captured. Parental promises of reunion are, of course, never fulfilled. Rose’s childhood confusion turns to the pain of adolescent understanding, then survivor’s guilt and an unspeakable grief in adulthood.
"We’re still here," Rose’s brother counsels her, years later when he attempts to crack her crestfallen wall of silence. But their parents were murdered and their futures stolen. Something else was taken from the family by the Nazis. Their mother’s prized belonging was an artwork, The Bellhop, by Russian-born French artist Chaim Soutine.
The painting, a fictional reimagining of Soutine’s many bellhop or bellboy compositions, ends up decades later in the US, purchased by a wealthy Los Angeles doctor.
It resonates with his young daughter Lizzie, the story’s second protagonist. But the painting is stolen a second time, and Lizzie feels responsible for its disappearance, having had an unapproved teen bash.
The story shifts forwards and backwards across 1936 to 2008, and the settings include wartime Vienna and Leeds, postwar London and modern-day Los Angeles and New York.
Lizzie grows up with irrational guilt about her parents’ separation, followed by the loss of her mother to cancer. She is also encumbered by a complex anger towards her father, a transference of shame at the theft of the Soutine compounded by an inexplicable feeling that he nurtured her culpability.
Like Rose, Lizzie avoids her past, shuns emotional honesty and restricts commitment to others. She can’t face memories of her mother’s imperfections, challenge her father’s half-truths or discuss her lover’s domestic foibles. Unable to confront small issues or larger truths, she copes by fleeing.
When she meets Rose by chance at her father’s funeral, Lizzie grasps at a subconscious path to atonement: if she can somehow find The Bellhop, she can salvage something of Rose’s childhood. They share much in common and The Bellhop is a catalyst for an unlikely friendship.
The twice-lost painting is a literary device in other ways. Umansky uses the painting as a symbol of life’s vicissitudes: its disappearance parallels the anguish of lives lost and childhoods stunted, but memory of it also represents hope and a beacon towards redemption.
Umansky has deliberately and ingeniously selected Soutine. The dense impasto of his brushstrokes reflects a tormented personality, mirroring Rose’s angst and Lizzie’s turmoil, while his savagely expressionist brushstrokes — the artistic embodiment of action, dynamism, force — contrast with the introspective reticence and inertia of the novel’s protagonists.
Above all, Soutine’s paintings capture the unstable, chaotic, fearful era in Europe.
Late in life Rose finds fulfillment as a teacher of English literature, an authorial character ploy that allows Umansky to infuse literary references into the narrative.
Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken is used to convey the human tendency towards regret and the uncertainty of, but the necessity for, decision-making. Reading and teaching Dostoevsky allows Rose to understand her obsession with the past and its manifest effect upon her: a fear of the future, an anxiety with life itself.
Reading and teaching Dostoevsky allows Rose to understand her obsession with the past and its manifest effect upon her: a fear of the future, an anxiety with life itself
The novel lifts from historical anecdotes such as the heartrending story of Lory Cahn, a young girl on a Kindertransport whose father dragged her back through the train window just as it started moving, unable to bear separation despite the looming Nazi peril. Umansky has taken inspiration, too, from autobiographies such as Ruth Kluger’s Still Alive: A Holocaust Girl Remembered, in which Kluger confounds the paradigm of survivor as hero and rages at the betrayal of her childhood, not least by her parents.
Compared with Rose’s experience, Lizzie’s misfortunes seem overdramatised and exaggerated in their effect upon a wealthy, confident professional woman. In some respects she is more fragile than her older friend, but perhaps Umansky’s intention is to illustrate how even apparently small cuts can wound, deeply.
Minor characterisation flaw apart, Umansky has crafted a subtly powerful exploration across multiple themes, including the psychology of bereavement and recovery; the restorative power of love and forgiveness; the nature of truth and the meaning of providence; and the resonance of the arts.
And especially the concept of gratitude. Despite being saved, the 10,000 children taken to Britain on the Kindertransport between 1938-1940 were not spared the effects of the Holocaust.
The Fortunate Ones is a form of fictional witness to a terrible time in history and its continuing repercussions for ordinary people. But even in the face of gross misfortune, the human spirit nurtures hope and arcs towards wholeness.
Rose and her brother only share feelings — vaguely, ephemerally — about 50 years later, agreeing that their parents were right, and beyond courageous, to put them on a Kindertransport.
This is forgiveness on a grand scale, and Umansky understands the reality of deep but awkward emotions by keeping the conversation clipped: "We were fortunate," Rose said to her brother. "Very," he agreed. So the novel’s title, ultimately, is only partly ironic.