25 March 2009

3. The Light of Men by Andrew Salmon

Another book from the 50 Books Book Club, which, so far, has accounted for 2/3 of my 2009 reading. I do have some books in the works, and plan to have a late spring flurry. I will also preface this by saying that I have not read the other comments as I write this review, though I will once I finish this post. I will include links to Olman's review, so you can find the others.

This was a difficult book for me to get into. Though by the third chapter, when I thought I had it figured out, it picked up pace until it was clear that I didn't have it figured out at all. Then it kind of dragged while I got over my disappointment.

Set in a WW2 concentration camp, we begin with the arrival of a boxcar of new prisoners that includes our main character, Aaron. Unnaturally savvy and cagey about prison-camp survival, Aaron soon blends in. And then he begins to work his way up the unofficial/prisoner pecking order until he can earn a meeting with Kreuger, the prisoner who runs the prison-mafia.

Aaron promises Krueger access to some exceptionally valuable diamonds in exchange for a few favors. Deal in place, Aaron moves into the Jewish section of the prison. There he meets John, a evangelic Rabbi who wants to recruit everyone he meets for a Revolution against the SS.

As part of the deal with Krueger, Aaron is able to befriend and protect one of the newly-arrived prisoners, Sol Liebman. Why he wants to do this is unclear until about halfway through the book.

I have to say that I was not really what kind of book I was reading. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be expecting some kind of WW2 survivor narrative, fictional or not, or some kind of alternate history. But when the first big reveal came, I have to admit to a certain level of satisfaction. I figured it was something like that. Aaron just knew too much about the camp, the prisoners, Sol, Krueger, and the real end of the war. So, I read on, and figured that I was reading some kind of alternate-reality story. But I had a sneaky suspicion I was being duped along the lines of "For the Love of the Game" which seems to be about baseball, but turns out to be a cheesy love story. Fortunately this fear was misplaced.

But when the real big reveal came, I have to admit to a certain level of disappointment. I didn't reject the idea with the now-legendary disdain that I rejected the warrior polar bears of the Golden Compass, but I have to admit that it was pretty, pretty, pretty close. Time travel was one thing. This was another. I'll just say that I felt like Ripley in Aliens and leave it there.

The end, then, was just playing out my hand and seeing how it all came together. I am glad I read the book, but it didn't offer me anything new. I feel like I have been in that concentration camp before. I felt like I had worked that black-market prison structure before. I knew the moves; I knew the reactions; I knew when to duck and when to jump.

Maybe I would have enjoyed it better with a little more clarification on the back cover. Even as I was getting deeper into the story, I just didn't care that much about the new prisoner's "mysterious agenda," or whether he was an "allied spy or a Nazi collaborator" (neither of these were alluded to in the text, either. Everyone just seems to accept Aaron for the cryptic he is.).

(And I also know what you are going to say, snobby-English teacher doesn't like anything written after 1969, but that's not it at all.)

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