Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stones from the River

Stones from the River
by Ursula Hegi

Trudi Montag, a manipulative, resentful, nosy dwarf uses the secrets she gathers to extract her revenge on the townspeople who consider themselves superior and shun her, during the period from the First to Second World Wars in Burgdorf, Germany. As far as synopses go, that would be pretty accurate but it wouldn't make you want to read the book. The main character may be less than sympathetic, but she is sharp and observant, and paints finely tuned, sensitive, and insightful pictures of her fellow citizens and the German psyche, as they are sucked into the tragic spiral of WWII. Inexplicably, Trudi herself is saved from being sent to the death camps, because although she is arrested, the German officer handling her case lets her go because she saves her life by charming him with her storytelling (à la Scheherazade), plus the fact that he is having an existential sturm und drang crisis that will eventually cost him his life, so we are told.
At the end of the story, Trudi reveals that the reason she has told this story is to honor the boy who was once her best friend Georg, and to tell each person's story. She also expounds on the imagery of the river, drawing comparisons to herself and the accumulation of experiences of her life. As a pretext, it is pretty flimsy. In terms of storytelling, it is a reasonable effort, but it does tend to meander and get lost in different eddies and currents that might make you think that they are leading somewhere as part of a directed narrative with deliberate construction, when in fact the end result is a sequence of tangentially linked incidents. That is the problem that historical novels often face: they are driven by the necessities of telling the story to fit the historical facts as they unfolded, as opposed to having a literary and narrative structure. Author Ursula Hegi also has a bit of trouble handling the large number of characters. Because there are so many characters, she ends up having to provide contextual information each time they reappear. The result is that the writing becomes over expository. The reader is given all of the information, interpretations, and explanations; there is nothing subtle, nothing that goes unstated. It is a reasonably good story, but not a great novel.

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