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August 7, 2006 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

The History of Love

This book deserves a better cover – something less purple and pale peach, without such a soppy font and not sporting a ‘Richard and Judy’s Book Club’ sticker.

Something that doesn’t suggest chick-lit (yes, I know I’m an awful literary snob, but I will not apologise for disliking writing, such as chick lit, that isn’t worth its weight in paper). The cover is the only reason why my boyfriend won’t read this otherwise worthy book. It was the only reason why I was embarrassed to be seen reading it in public.

However, ignoring the cover (as the saying instructs), Nicole Krauss’ second book is thoroughly satisfying. Using two first person narrators, Krauss constructs two stories, which, by the end of the book, are plaited together into one complex tale about loneliness and, as the title suggests, love. The History of Love seems a fairly saccharine title, really, but because it’s the title of the fictional book within the story, which is responsible for bringing all the characters together, it’s an appropriate choice.

The book within the book is written by the first narrator, Leo Gursky, an elderly man, living in a messy apartment, directly below his elderly friend’s apartment. They bash on the floors and ceilings with a broom each day, in order to find out if the other is still alive. Leo wrote the book many years ago, in Poland, for a young woman, Alma. Of course, the war gets in the way of their young love; Alma is shipped off to America. When Leo finally catches up with her, in New York, she has married another man and has a young son. The son, however, belongs to Leo. Not wanting to wreck her marriage, Leo agrees to never see Alma or his young son again. This promise leads to a lonely life as locksmith, which dribbles into a lonely old age, without family. What, you may ask, happened to Leo’s book during the war? Well, before going to America he left the manuscript in safe keeping with a friend. He never sees the friend again.

This is a good time to talk about young Alma, the second narrator, whose chapters are written in small, accessible sections, divided by quirky titles, like: “THE WALL OF DICTIONARIES BETWEEN MY MOTHER AND THE WORLD GETS TALLER EVERY YEAR”. She is twelve years old, her father has recently died of a terminal illness, her mother, a translator, is wrapping herself up so tightly in work that she is becoming a grief stricken hermit. Her younger brother, Chaim, believes he is the new messiah and is busy building his family an ark. Alma is desperate to cheer her mother up, and believes that the only way to do this is to find her a companion. A man, who is commissioning a translation of a book written in the 1940s called ‘The History of Love’ (yep, the same one, but how did it get published?) is corresponding with Alma’s mother regularly. If Alma can find out who this man is, and why this book is so important to her mother, then perhaps her family will become more normal.

With admirable control, Krauss alternates Leo’s chapters with Alma’s, gradually weaving details together, often avoiding appearing too contrived, yet managing to end with a charming twist. Although the feat of pulling off a plot like this, which juggles a multitude of settings and characters fairly successfully, is enough to make a book good, Krauss’ strength, I believe, is in her characterisation. Both Alma and Leo are compelling, sympathetic, and fleshed-out characters, whom I became completely involved in. Even walk-on parts, like Alma’s uncle, and Leo’s friend, Bruno, were done with sensitivity and flair. My only regret was that I didn’t see more of Alma’s fascinating mother, who wafted about, planting flowers at night and giving dead writers “posthumous Nobel prizes”.

At first, when I read the blurb on the back cover, I was a little dubious. There have been so many books written about Jewish families in New York, who begin trying to reconcile their family roots, in Poland or Germany, with their current life in the US. Although this element was certainly explored, I believe The History of Love could have been set in any country, with any immigrant nationality narrating, because its strength lies, for me, in Krauss’ unsentimental, yet humanist treatment of each of the character’s particular types of loneliness. Anyone, of any background, can relate to that.



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