A Review of Ellen Ullman’s By Blood (Picador, 2012)

Just when you thought you couldn’t read another novel about the Holocaust, Ellen Ullman comes along with one that doesn’t feel like one for the first hundred pages, by which time you’ve been sucked into her story of a disgraced, male university professor eavesdropping on a female psychologist’s sessions with a young female patient, only to discover that this uniquely-structured story is in part an eye-opening look at lasting horror of Nazism on European Jewry.

Readers are likely to be put off by Ullman’s professor­­––not only due to the extent to which he is driven by personal demons––a psychosis some readers will have trouble identifying with, but also because his violation of the privacy of a patient-psychologist relationship. The professor’s interest in these sessions begins as a function of their voices––the lisp-like German accent of the psychologist (“her spat-out Ts and whistled Ss”) and the patient’s “creamy alto” coupled with the pronunciation of “a provincial who had acquired culture.” Later he is hooked by the unresolved issue the psychologist won’t let the patient dismiss––the fact of her having been adopted––a condition the professor identifies with in his desire to save himself.

Ullman cleverly never allows the professor (or us as readers) to see either the patient or the psychologist. All we have to go by are their words––words whose meaning is hard to pin down in part because the professor has no first-hand relationship to either, words complicated by the patient-doctor relationship––the patient alternating between a stance of not needing the psychologist and then wishing she would do more for her and the psychologist feeling conflicted about her objectivity due to her own family past while wanting to trust in her ability to help the patient.

Finally, the patient begins to open herself to her feelings about the distance she feels from the people who raised her and about not knowing who gave birth to her. When her search for answers runs into a road-block, the professor intervenes, doing the research and finding a ruse by which he can convey his findings to the information hungry patient.

The interplay of these three characters is part of the richness of Ullman’s story. Had she written the typical Holocaust story from the perspective of a young woman growing up in a rich Jewish family in Berlin in the 1930s, the impact of that story might have been diminished by the reading public’s belief that “we already know what happened.” Instead, we are exposed to one woman’s tragedy through the triad’s slow, tedious discovery process––the patient and psychologist struggling over it’s import and the professor having convinced himself of the necessity for the patient to pursue the question of her birth until the truth is known, for his sake as much as for hers, prodding the patient with more and more information until she acts and takes over the quest.

Then, just when we think the facts have come out, Ullman skillfully pulls the rug out from under us, exposing the depth of the often-troubled relationships that hatred brought about before the war, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the ongoing impact of that hatred on displaced Jews in the years immediately after the war.

After Ullman has sucked us into wanting to know the truth about the lives of these characters, opening our eyes to the impact of geo-political events in ways we might not have considered, she leaves us with an open-ended conclusion. Although the patient has found her birth-mother and learned the truth of her origins, what she is going to do with that information is not clear; nor is the impact of the patient’s discoveries on the professor clear. Legal action by the university over some unspecified event is still up in the air, but that is not what’s most important. The professor cannot continue as he has. He has been discovered. He was only able to overhear the weekly sessions due to the patient’s dislike of the psychologist’s sound-machine. At the end of the story, the sound machine is back on, and besides, the professor is losing his office space.

Are we dissatisfied by the unresolved nature of the ending? I was not. Each of the characters has grown––the patient especially, the psychologist perhaps the least, but the professor not unsubstantially. There are signs that fears that in the past drove him to act in unacceptable ways have less efficacy. He’s not out of the woods, but one suspects he will find the strength to move on, which was clearly in doubt at the story’s beginning.

This is a masterful story in its conception and execution. We care about people we can’t see, people whose interactions are confined to an artificial environment and whose history, even at the end, we know only indistinctly. Part mystery, part historical novel, part psychological thriller, By Blood is a story that touches the reader in ways we didn’t foresee. How special is that!


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