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Review by: Ashlie Sponenberg


The Dark Room
ISBN: 0375726322
By Rachel Seiffert

Rachel Seiffert's novel The Dark Room consists of three parts which could be regarded as separate novellas, each of which is set in Germany at different periods throughout the twentieth century. The plots of the three parts are unrelated, but Nazism and the Holocaust are undercurrents within each of these narratives of the lives of ordinary Germans. Seiffert's characters are neither Jews nor Nazis, but they and their families are dramatically affected by the historical periods in which they live. Their tales of survival and acceptance are gripping, and depict aspects of wartime and post-war life in Germany which are perhaps not as well known as are Holocaust narratives to international audiences.

Recurrent motifs and words, such as photographs and German familial terms (Oma, Opa, Mutti, Vati), resonate between the stories, so that each central character has to negotiate evidence of Nazi violence against the affection felt for family members who may have participated in that violence. This anxiety resurfaces in each generation so that the Holocaust lingers as a pervasive presence into the 1980s. Seiffert capably and movingly handles large themes of guilt and reconciliation, creating three powerful narratives that locate private lives within overwhelming historical moments.

The first part of the novel is set in Berlin from 1921 to 1945, and narrates the childhood and early adulthood of Helmut, a patriotic young man who is kept out of the army because of his physical disabilities. After training to work in a photographer's lab, he begins to use his camera to record the disappearance and movement of people from Berlin, documenting the slow transformation of his beloved city. Helmut's patriotism is shaken after he witnesses a violent scene; the actions of angry soldiers abusing people at a train depot make more sense to the reader than to Helmut, who struggles to understand the horrors he has photographed. His prints do not report the fear, guilt, and misery of the scene, and they are the first of many photographs within the novel which are confusing and inadequate representations of an evasive 'truth.' Helmut's story is an affecting exploration of an ordinary German's first encounter with the awful facts of his government's activities and of how this character copes with the new knowledge.

This section of the text also features detailed descriptions of the aftermath of Allied bombings of the city. Seiffert's images of shattered glass and bricks, starvation, and separated families depict the destroyed city in terms more often expected of descriptions of Kristallnacht and the conditions imposed upon Jewish families and merchants. The bombing of Helmut's neighbourhood results in the loss of his home and a state of citywide chaos which separates him from his parents, perhaps permanently.

The issue of the neglected material suffering experienced within Germany is also important to the second section of the novel, which is a haunting story centred round Lore, a twelve-year old girl who takes sole responsibility for her four young siblings, including an infant brother. At the end of the war, her Nazi parents are arrested by Allied soldiers, and she makes her way with the other children across the occupied country towards Hamburg, where her grandmother may or may not be alive and able to take them in. The simplistic, repetitive grammar of Seiffert's sentences is childlike, and depicts one horrific event after another in a subtle, understated manner which is especially effective. The children's encounters with the divided country's meagre infrastructure and infighting between Soviet, British and American soldiers introduces to the reader another cause of nationwide suffering not often recorded in fiction. As a tale of survival, this story is perhaps the most moving of the three because the bravery required of the starving, vulnerable children in the open, militarized German countryside is tense and engrossing.

The Holocaust is also a presence within Lore's story, when she views the first fly posted photographs of concentration camp victims. Seiffert represents not only the initial public reaction to these images, but also imagines how the families and friends of Nazis might understand their loved ones within this emerging background of suspicion, disbelief and hatred. She dramatizes tense private relationships within a particularly crucial moment in post-Nazi German history.

The final section of the novel is set in 1985 and at first the connection between Michael, a young teacher, and the wartime and post-war events of the earlier sections are not apparent, except in his occasional standard, anti-Nazi lessons about the Holocaust. Seiffert once again uses photographs to initiate the difficult beginnings of Michael's negotiation between familial love and political and historical understanding. Michael pieces together information which he has ignored all of his life and begins to suspect that his beloved grandfather was a Nazi leader. His suspicions become an obsession that take him away from his family and girlfriend and into Belarussia, tracing the history which may confirm the fact about his grandfather that he does not want to believe. As in the previous stories, Nazism indirectly threatens to shatter a family. Through Michael's journey, the suffering and murders brought to the Belarussian village indicate the extent to which the guilt and pain of Nazism continue into succeeding generations.

This is a gripping novel; Seiffert creates intense characters and plots in her portrayal of a dark period of German history from a perspective which is not as familiar to readers as are stories of the Holocaust and of concentration camps. Enormous political and historical issues are examined in terms of compelling narratives of family, loyalty, and self-preservation. The author's simple writing style is an impressive, understated vehicle for these themes. The novel seems to conclude that no one is blameless: Allied planes and soldiers destroy homes and lives, and unexpected characters turn out to be Nazis, so that 'good people' may also be depicted as the most reprehensible. Seiffert's first novel is a challenging read; her themes are provocative, but she handles them responsibly, creating narratives of survival that are chilling examinations of the effects of politics and morality upon crucial personal relationships.

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