Book Reviews: A Death in Vienna and The Other House

A Death in Vienna, Daniel Silva, 2005

Sometimes fiction does a better job of getting at the truth of a situation than non-fiction. This is true in particular when dealing with meaning and implication where there’s little disagreement about the facts, but what to make of those facts is unsettled.

When considering the Holocaust, the issue is not one of fact, except to those who wish to ignore proven facts for political purposes. Rather the issue is how do we get people to understand the unimaginable. In three novels that deal with to use his words “the unfinished business of the Holocaust,” Daniel Silva gets at truths in a way that non-fiction has a hard time accomplishing. In The English Assassin, The Confessor, and A Death in Vienna, Silva makes aspects of the Holocaust accessible in the context of a thriller where good men sacrifice all hope for ordinary lives in order to put to rest aspects of the Holocaust that have escaped official resolution. In other words, they’re after bad guys who have yet to get their due.

In A Death in Vienna, the unfinished business is Aktion 1005, the destruction of evidence of the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe, as well as the death march from Birkenau, when the Germans in retreat from the Russians forced concentration camp survivors to walk hundreds of miles costing half or more their lives.

The context is the recognition by a camp survivor of a man he witnessed kill a dozen Jews in Auschwitz. That sets off a series of events which disrupts the attempt of Gabriel Allon to live the quiet life of an art restorer. No need to say more about the details of the story other than to praise the way Silva builds tension until the end, but that is one of Silva’s strengths. He draws us into the story, giving us small details of exotic locations, including the capitals of Europe, treating us to the personalities of this obscure world of Israeli intelligence, and inviting us into the dark chambers of Allon’s personal story–more so in this story than in some others.

Many truths await the reader in A Death in Vienna. I give it a rare (for me) five stars.

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The Other House, Henry James, 1896

Not a book I’d ordinarily read given that it is one of James’ least known works, but it happened to be the best of a small pile of books in an apartment we were staying in while in Italy and it helped pass the time on our flight back to the U.S. of A.

On the surface The Other House explores the social environment that impels a young woman to murder a four-year old child. The woman is not of a lower class, but is rather love-stricken over her best friend’s husband. On her best friend’s deathbed after a rough child-birth, she makes her husband swear not to remarry as long as the child lived…which dooms the child.

The Other House portrays the social environment of late 19th century small town England. James delves into the behaviors, ideals and thoughts of his characters, leading to the inevitable conclusion. The subject and its treatment suggest why this book is less highly regarded than James’ other novels, but students of 19th century literature may find The Other House a worthwhile read.

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