Moving and then muddled
ISO WANTED to enjoy The Gratitude Cradle (Wilton 65) by Rhona Barnett Beck — who since its publication has now sadly died — the tale of a Holocaust survivor at the centre of a family saga. From the blurb, it promised to be the kind of book for which I would let everything else dissolve into thoughts, sentiments and memories.
And it is moving, especially in relation to the main character, Chaim, around whom the story is woven. There were tears in my eyes as I read about the horrors that followed the end of his life in the camps. And the story of his relationship with Leah, another survivor, who — after believing she was made barren by the starvation she suffered — gives him a child, is as poignantly told as any I have read recently.
I am sorry to say that the rest of the novel fails to match up to this central thread. It is remarkable how such contrasting levels of writing can appear over 327 pages under the same author’s name.
Leaving aside the well-woven account of the life of Chaim, the remaining threads are seriously tangled, leaving the plot confusingly complicated and packed with so many characters that it could do with a mini Who’s Who.
There is the relationship with Anne, the former wife of Chaim’s son-in-law (somehow a “grandsonin-law” appears — something it took me to the end of the book to work out) who, before Anne, had been married to Chaim’s daughter, the one was who was born soon after Chaim’s wife (who died in childbirth nine months later) was liberated. I know. It’s difficult.
When other characters appear, like Jeanette, Chaim’s son-in-law’s latest wife, who is an antisemite, and her daughter Judith and various grandchildren, it is tempting to just give up — a temptation reinforced by the mix up between post-war and contemporary settings and the strange notion that, when Chaim decides to spend his late retirement writing about the tales in the Torah, we should be treated to page after page of Bible stories in the manner of a book given as a prize at a school Purim party.
It is sad that this is such an uneven hotchpotch because, at times, Beck shows that she can tell a powerful tale.
The story of his relationship with fellow survivor, Leah, is as poignantly told as any I’ve read recently The plot is packed with so many characters that it could do with a mini Who’s Who