Book Review

Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms is a tour de force collection of linked short stories following a half-Jewish French family and the people whose lives intersect with members of that family at pivotal moments. It begins just before the start of the Nazi occupation of France and ends several generations later in the United States. In many ways the linked stories act as a novel with all the boring parts excised and other, more interesting moments of supporting characters added in their place. Hall also takes advantage of being able to switch points of view between stories in order to see elements of the same narrative from different angles. Thus, in much the same way that a panoramic photo can show a full 360-degree image at once, the stories in this book create a satisfying hyper-completeness.

For readers who were sorry to finish All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, this book has both geographic and thematic overlap: Heirlooms begins and ends with journeys to the city of Saint-Malo where much of All the Light We Cannot See takes place. Heirlooms has a different preoccupation at its core, but the walled city of Saint-Malo and its dramatic tides are just as significant in Heirlooms as they are in Doerr’s novel. Specifically, when Heirlooms starts, we meet Lise who is on her way to Saint-Malo to pick up her niece, Eugenie, from her dying sister-in-law. Lise’s twin brother, Alain, is away working for the Resistance. We then follow Lise after war breaks out as she flees south, and then after the war, as she emigrates to America. The storyline continues through Eugenie’s life in the United States, and then on through two more generations of children. Along the way the reader sees Lise and her family from the perspectives of neighbors; a country farmer who witnesses Alain’s death; Alain’s bereaved lover; fellow immigrants on the boat to America; a childhood friend of Lise’s husband, Jean; and a slew of Americans from different walks of life. In the final story of the collection, Eugenie returns, as a mature woman, to Saint-Malo in search of her mother’s grave.

In the world of these stories, Lise, Jean, and Eugenie survive, but only just, and many from their world do not. This book is ultimately about the numerous hard ways humans survive horrors, not just during the unfolding of terrible events, but also afterward, with guilt acknowledged and not. The stories show how each step forward for survivors is a separate Herculean effort to carry on and to find grace in the form of happiness, love, or acceptance. We see that the traumas of loss are never quite done or healed, even generations later, as is highlighted by title of one story—“The War Ends Many Times”—and by a passage from “En Voyage”:

What he thinks is this: when you leave your past as he has done, the job is never    finished. You are required to leave over and over again.

Despite the painful reality of the impossibility of eluding loss, this is a book that uplifts its readers. It contains myriad silver linings that slowly but steadily balance the horrors. Although the stories contain rape; denunciation; a firing squad; unquantifiable loss of people, place, and possessions; and finally, in a disgusting coup de grâce, having to listen to anti-Semitic jokes with good grace—the book retains an optimistic feel. Maybe it is because the characters themselves insist, even as they labor under the iron grip of their pasts, on also looking relentlessly forward. In “A Handbook of American Idioms,” Lise’s husband Jean notices that, “in this country with so little past, people seem to skim over the present too, and focus almost entirely on the future—on the next day or week, the weekend, their vacation at the end of the year. This way of thinking suits him for the moment.” Similarly, in the story “Heirlooms,” Lise decides it is better not to think about the small possessions she could have taken with her when she emigrated. Rather it was “better to think instead ‘useful,’ ‘necessary,’ ‘indispensable.’” The main characters in Heirlooms thus forge ahead steadily.

On some level this collection is also concerned with the role of storytelling in surviving and thriving. This is most apparent in the story “White Lies.”  It diverges briefly from the main geography of the book to take the reader to Tel Aviv, where Lise’s mother and sister live. At the end of the war, Lise’s sister, Allegra, decides not to tell their mother that Alain, her son, has died. All the other members of the family are complicit in supporting this story temporarily. But then the temporary lie turns into a permanent fiction to be cultivated and maintained. Thus not only does Allegra make up excuses for Alain’s unavailability right after the end of the war, but years later Jean is still ghostwriting letters to Lise’s mother as Alain and has created such a plausible fictional life and career for Alain as a surgeon in the United States that Jean himself sometimes forgets that Alain doesn’t actually live that life. The story is both fabulistic yet utterly authentic in its emotional content. And this is not the only story that contains such self-conscious storytelling for coping.

Finally, this book is very much a woman’s story of war and its aftermath, and not simply because much of the narrative is seen through the eyes of female characters. The lens of motherhood and mothering is essential to the tales as many elements of the stories unfold within the context of the mothering relationship—not just of sacrifices made for children or sorrow for lost or endangered children, although these are quite prominent. There are also several instances of women acting as perpetrators of atrocities on account of their motherhood or yearning for motherhood. Most importantly, a central tale of Eugenie is that of the lost mother. The only closure possible for this lost mother tale comes in the book’s final story, “In the Cemeteries of Saint-Malo,” in which an unsatisfying search for her long-lost mother’s grave is redeemed partly by Eugenie’s encounter with a German tourist couple in a restaurant. The war should and does lie between the French woman and the couple, but when it turns out that the two mothers have both survived breast cancer and all that it entails, that similarity bridges all that should have driven them apart and provides Eugenie with greater connection than any of the other elements of her return to Saint-Malo.

The book begins with stories almost too raw to be enjoyable, but quickly thereafter becomes one that is impossible to put down as the reader grows more and more invested in the lives of its characters.  It is a masterpiece of storytelling.

About the Reviewer

Amanda Moger Rettig is a writer living outside of Boston with her husband and three children.