There are so many words to describe this book by Jenna Blum. Haunting. Descriptive. Painful. Authentic.
I read this book because it’s set in WWII and I thought it would be good research material for the novel I’m writing that also goes back in time to the 1940's. The author doesn’t disappoint. Blum weaves together the stories of a mother and her daughter, both of whom are focused on the past following the death of the family patriarch.
The mother is elderly and has spent her lifetime raising her daughter, pushing aside the trials and tragedies she endured while living in Germany during Hitler’s reign and later emigrating to America. Meanwhile her daughter struggles against strange childhood memories. What is the mystery behind the old family photo? Why won’t her mother talk to her about her growing up years and the people who are nothing more than vague images yet cause her such emotion? Their distant relationship becomes increasingly difficult when the two are forced to live together.
One thing about this book that I didn’t expect was the controversy that it sparked among my fellow writers. Nor did I expect that Blum’s complete disregard for quotation marks to be the focus of that controversy. The author of this painfully beautiful novel about a mother’s love chose not to use a single quotation mark in the book, despite the fact that it contains dialogue. I found it fascinating and found her style of story structure to be one of the primary draws to read. As writers know, there are a variety of ‘rules’ about writing and one of those is to break the rules.
Since I enjoy reading new authors and emulating those whose novels I admire, I took the concept of eschewing quotation marks to one of my favorite writing groups—the 10 Minute Novelists. I was surprised that several said they wouldn’t read a book that broke this rule. When I mentioned that I’m considering trying this style for one of my own books, others wanted to know why I would do that to my readers. It was an interesting debate. One that left me more determined than ever to try it out in a future book.
Anyway, if you’re looking for an authentic and detailed historical fiction novel about WWII, read this book. If you’re looking for an emotional page turner about personal tragedy, family dynamics, and forgiveness, read this book. If you’re looking for a book that’s a happy, easy read that doesn’t grip you with the awful details of the horrific second world war, this is not the book for you.
Finally, if you’re a fan of quotation marks or not a fan of them or have complete indifference to them, I challenge you to read this book for the purpose of exploring a different sentence structure. Sure, there might be “rules” to writing that keep authors in a plain box. And maybe that box is the best and safest place for a reader to be. Or, maybe it’s time for writers to explore what it’s like to break those rules and provide readers with a new literary experience.