by Suzanne Leal
Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW
Paperback: 277 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Actions have consequences, many of which affect people for the rest of their long lives, and their descendants. This idea is central to Suzanne Leal’s latest novel, The Deceptions.
A lawyer by profession, Leal has again incorporated a Holocaust story into her work. The inspiration of one of the central aspects of the plot, namely a gendarme befriending a Jewess, came from her former landlord and Holocaust survivor, Fred Perger. Many of Perger’s other anecdotes formed the basis of her first novel, Border Street.
The novel begins in 2010 with Hana, one of the three central characters. Readers learn she is an elderly woman of Jewish back-ground, originally from Prague but now living in England, who has been widowed for a year.
In the next chapter, the narrative shifts to Sydney, and introduces Karel Kruta, an elderly man of Czech background, and his wife Irena. During the war Karel had been a gendarme, and reference is made to him rounding up Jews as part of his duties. Towards the end of the chapter, the third main protagonist, Karel and Irena’s granddaughter Tessa, makes her first appearance when calling on her grandparents.
Readers soon learn, in subsequent chapters, key details about each of the three protagonists. Tessa, an office worker, is entangled in an affair with Evan, a married man, whose wife gives birth to a baby in the course of the novel. Seeing no future in this relationship, she forms an attachment to Jon, a science teacher, whom she meets in a bar.
The relationship between Evan and Tessa ends. However, at a critical point in the novel, Tessa and Evan – in the company of his wife and children – notice each other at the beach.
Early in the novel, Irena falls suddenly ill, and is taken to hospital. At this point, another important character, Ruth, Irena and Karel’s minister of religion, enters the plot. She will play a seminal role, and have to overcome a critical moral dilemma towards the end of the novel.
While much of the plot is engaging, one of the highlights was the recounting of Hana’s wartime experiences. Born Hana Lederova in Prague, the daughter of a Jewish dentist, Hana’s father refused to leave Czechoslovakia when war became imminent. He, his wife and Hana are ultimately sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and from there Hana’s parents are deported to Auschwitz.
While part of a labour gang working outside the camp, Hana comes to the attention of Karel, a gendarme guarding them. He initially chooses to overlook her smuggling of food into the camp – an offence that was punished by being placed on the next transport to Auschwitz – and gradually assists her by providing her with boots. Eventually he arranges for them to meet secretly, where he provides her extra food, and they have an affair.
WHAT ARE THE CONNECTIONS?
However, Hana’s luck changes when she receives notification that she is to be deported the following day and, when she tries to find Karel to save her, she is unable to locate him.
After arrival at Auschwitz late in 1944, Hana survives initial selection, and is subject to the brutality of the camp, as well as that of the death marches, when the Nazis took surviving camp inmates into Germany to prevent them from being liberated by Soviet troops. Barely surviving the Holocaust, she finds work in England, ultimately marrying her employer.
One of the chief strengths of The Deceptions is the way in which Leal maintains suspense throughout the novel. This is achieved largely through interweaving the storylines of the main characters.
For much of the novel, readers are unable to deduce the connections between all of the characters, and it is not until the latter section of the novel that the relationships between a seemingly disparate group of characters is revealed. Leal effectively maintains readers’ suspense right until the final page.
As the title of the novel, The Deceptions, suggests, the themes of betrayal and deceit and their far-reaching consequences are explored, together with the dilemmas characters face as a consequence of the duplicitous behaviour in which they have engaged. While Hana’s responses to Karel’s failure to save her strike the reader as authentic, Karel’s long-term response to his wife’s actions in the novel, let alone the survival of their marriage over many decades, would be harder for many readers to accept as an authentic response.
Notwithstanding this facet of the plot, The Deceptions is an engaging novel, one that maintained this reviewer’s interest throughout.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.