Two books about the Holocaust

Fairly sure I said something about not reading much about the Holocaust in the last decade or so because I overdid it in the eighties and nineties… Anyway, seems that went out the window when I read The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman and The Toy Maker by Liam Pieper, one after the other.

The books are similar in many ways – both tell the story of an Australian man living in the present alongside the story of a Holocaust survivor; both are set in the ‘Canada’ barracks at Auschwitz–Birkenau and examine the role of the Sonderkommando; both have themes of good versus evil, penance, and the measure of crime; both show that there are lessons in history.

“History can provide comfort in difficult or even turbulent and traumatic times. It shows us what our species has been through before and that we survived. It can help to know we’ve made it through more than one dark age. And history is vitally important because perhaps as much as, if not more than biology, the past owns us and however much we think we can, we cannot escape it. If you only knew how close you are to people who seem so far from you… it would astonish you.” (Perlman)

And both books were distressing. So much so that in doing their research, I’m quite sure that Perlman and Pieper would have had many moments where they had to turn away from their books, many nights broken by nightmares.

“As consciousness began to leave them they behaved not like parents or husbands or wives or friends or brothers and sisters but like the most basic organisms without the capacity to do a single thing in their struggle not to die except try desperately to get away from the gas as it made its way upward and filled the room. The smallest, the weakest, the most frail were being crushed as the man with the beautiful singing voice, the carpenter, the younger of the two doctors, the engineer, the thief, climbed over and then stood on the body and sometimes then on the head of the woman whose husband used to embarrass her, the eleven-year-old boy with the wavy hair, the teacher, the prostitute, the daughter of the stonemason, the man who never showed anyone his drawings, the old man who was slow to undress, the woman who liked fashion magazines, her daughter. And on the children, and the old.” (Perlman)

There’s much to recommend both books (and I’m not suggesting it’s one or the other). The Street Sweeper has the feel of a saga – it’s not, but Perlman weaves disparate stories together and the result is rich and absorbing, with each plot line as compelling as the others. And his writing is superb – plain but packed with feeling.

The modern plot line in The Toy Maker was a touch too ‘sensational’ for my liking. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it didn’t win me but described it to another reader as ‘grubby’. It’s tasteless in parts – obviously this criticism sounds ridiculous given that much of the story is about the Holocaust but those who’ve read it will know precisely what I’m referring to.

However (and it’s a big however), there’s a plot twist that blew my tiny little mind sky-high. I often think that one of the disadvantages of being an avid reader is that you get to know story structures and plot devices – although I’m not consciously looking for clues, I can’t help but decode what I’m reading. When a story delivers a twist that takes me completely by surprise, I’m thrilled – for that reason, The Toy Maker will stick in my mind.

The Street Sweeper – 4/5 It had the satisfying feel of an epic tale that, on finishing, sat just right with me.

The Toy Maker – 3/5 Seemed there were a few cheap shots in this book but that twist…so good.


13 responses

  1. Well, I thought The Street Sweeper was brilliant, but The Toymaker? Yes indeed it’s ‘grubby’ but not just the incident you’re thinking of, I think the whole book is worse than grubby. The author used the Holocaust purely for the purpose of sensationalism – and that’s beyond tasteless IMO.

    • There were a few elements of the story that I had trouble with (and I don’t think Pieper’s writing is particularly remarkable). I know you hated this book and I understand why although I’m not one hundred percent convinced that Pieper was using the Holocaust gratuitously – I have a nagging suspicion that he thought there were parallels (whether they’re legitimate or not is another thing) between the Holocaust and sweat-shop labour. Is this the right vehicle for exploring those parallels? Probably not. Did he tackle it in a sensitive or respectful way? Probably not. Did the story need the ‘grubby’ element? Absolutely not. But the twist made me gasp. And then made me think about what people do in extreme circumstances.

      For anyone reading these comments, pop over to ANZ LitLovers and read Lisa’s review of The Toy Maker –

    • The Toy Maker was well received by critics in Australia but I can appreciate Lisa’s issues with the book. As I mentioned to someone else, the detail about the Holocaust in The Street Sweeper is explicit but not gratuitous, however in The Toy Maker the author pushes the line.

  2. I haven’t read Pieper’s, but LOVED Perlman’s. The characters were so well drawn and complex, loved the parallel stories and the weaving in of the NGO legal organisations and what they achieved.

    • I agree, the parallels that Perlman explored were wonderful. Pieper tried to do a similar thing but his characters weren’t as well developed so suffered from a lack of authenticity because of it. Had I not read the two books so close together I might not have noticed though.

  3. Interesting discussion of The Toymaker – I’ll pop over and read Lisa’s review. I have the Perlman in the TBR, I’ll have to choose a time when I feel prepared for the horror. The passage you quoted about the gas is just heart-wrenching.

    • If you were to only choose one then go for The Street Sweeper – it is far more thoughtful and the structure is impressive. That quote is one of dozens I could have picked, all equally as heart-wrenching 🙁

  4. I read quite a bit of books related to WWII and both of these interest me. I haven’t read a good one in a while… Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans was probably my last but that was a few years ago. I think both of these need to go on my TBR.

  5. I’ll pass on the Toymaker, but I am putting the Street Sweeper on my eventual to read list. Interesting that I’m not the only one who read too much on this topic back in the day. For me it started with Winds of War (which I read before it came on tv) and then I was badly traumatized by what was probably a cheesy tv mini-series The Holocaust, but I was compelled to keep reading. A prof who was the son of Auschwitz survivors was another catalyst. I don’t watch much any more, but I do still read on the subject. I can’t read them at night though.

    Excellent reviews

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