The deep discomfort of remembering, Ann Beaglehole

All This by Chance
Vincent O’Sullivan
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781776561797

All This by Chance is not a Holocaust novel nor a Jewish one, according to author Vincent O’Sullivan. It is a Kiwi story. But the book is most likely to be seen as a Holocaust novel: “about the legacy of the Holocaust” for three generations of Jewish women, as the promotion states.

The novel focuses on Eva, Lisa and Esther, profoundly affected by that calamity, either directly or by growing up in its shadow. Eva, rescued as a child, was raised in London by non-Jews. After her marriage there to solid, non-Jewish, Kiwi bloke Stephen, the couple settle in Auckland. They have two children: Lisa and David. David has one daughter: Esther, the third of the generations.

O’Sullivan is alert to the tensions between them. Lisa and David have grown up knowing little about their mother’s background, which Lisa seems to accept, but David cannot. In Stephen’s eyes, David wanted “more than any child can ever have. You cannot become your parents. Let alone the parents before them.” The past David yearns to understand was like “fragments chipped from a mosaic”. It couldn’t be pieced together.

Stephen is partly responsible for the secrets, through his efforts to protect the family from painful memories and from people who are “obsessed” (surely a loaded word) with remembering the past. There are several references to “obsessive” behaviour by those who won’t let go of the past and to the threat of being “swamped” by it. But whose viewpoint is this?

To a large extent, O’Sullivan’s book is about the deeply uncomfortable act of remembering the Holocaust: the struggle between the desire to repress memories of the tragedy and the need to remember. While people have tried to justify, erase, distort and deny memories of the catastrophe, there is a Jewish cultural imperative not to forget, an obligation owed both to those who survived and to those who did not.

With considerable psychological insight, O’Sullivan shows the impact on the family of Stephen’s efforts to push the past under the carpet. Eva’s depression is probably caused by this driving underground of emotional expression. I found the story of Stephen’s and Eva’s cross-cultural marriage painfully poignant. “We are hardly a family to let emotion off its leash,” recalls Lisa.

O’Sullivan has spoken about not having the right to assume a Jewish “sensibility” and the risks of “intruding”. The novel works best when we hear Stephen’s voice. He knows so little about Jews that he worked in a pharmacy in Auckland for years without realising that his employer and mentor was a Jew. Renouncing Jewish sensibility works less well when O’Sullivan contrives to have a person of the Jehovah’s Witness faith recall the brutality of the concentration camps. Is he not thereby intruding on Jehovah’s Witness sensibility? Perhaps the device is to stress the point that Holocaust victims were not all Jewish.

There has been debate on these issues, for example about the validity of Pākehā telling Māori stories. I don’t for a moment believe that you have to be Jewish to write a Holocaust novel. It is splendid that others are taking responsibility to do so. If there is something missing from O’Sullivan’s novel, it is not Jewish “sensibility” but, perhaps, freshness. I don’t suppose, though, as some people do, that fictional treatments of the Holocaust are doomed to fail. A novel that works well, in my opinion, is Anita Brookner’s Latecomers, steeped in the atmosphere that O’Sullivan works hard to convey, but too explicitly – in the lives of fragile, displaced and, sometimes, damaged people. Yet the words “Jew” or “Holocaust” are almost totally absent.

O’Sullivan had the benefit of excellent cultural advice and did his research (the Yiddish speaking Jews of Golders Green, for example), contributing to the novel’s authenticity. It is not hard to overlook the remaining mistakes, such as kippahs for kippot. However, at times the book feels schematic and manufactured. Stephen is the son of a father traumatised and damaged during WWI. Eva is traumatised in WWII. Stephen has succeeded in putting past trauma behind him; Eva cannot. Eva was rescued as a child; her daughter Lisa tries to rescue a child. Sometimes the story lurches from one disparate thread to another, seemingly without logic. What is the reader to make of the weird ritual with the bees? But O’Sullivan’s striking use of language and evocation of places (dreary, muddy Kiwi farms) partly compensates.

The tone is earnest and respectful in the Jewish sections. I missed the humour, irreverence and cynicism of O’Sullivan’s short stories. This may be unfair, given the topic, though Diana Wichtel’s Driving to Treblinka manages to be both sad and funny. All This by Chance is O’Sullivan’s third novel. No cake-walk, it gives a vivid glimpse of the Jewish calamity, of the intergenerational effects, and of the New Zealand context. I expect the book will impress readers differently, depending on whether they are affected personally by the Holocaust and on how much they know of the fraught history.

Ann Beaglehole is a Wellington reviewer and historian. Her parents were Holocaust survivors.

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