Two loners' continual meetings

2007-11-21 00:00

DESPITE the book's title, this is as much Paul's tale as it is Clara's. He is French, she is German, both of them born shortly after the end of World War 2. However, despite being children of a Europe at peace, they are both victims of history, each scarred in their own way by the weight of painful memories, indirect witnesses to the crimes and ravages of war.

Paul meets Clara in the Bavarian village of Kehlstein during the sixties where he is spending a summer as an exchange student in order to improve his German. He is the son of a Resistance fighter, murdered in peacetime Paris when Paul was 12 years old. She is the daughter of a doctor who served in the Wehrmacht during the disastrous Russian campaign. They are both loners, unable to fit in with their more carefree peers.

Paul is driven by an inexplicable anxiety, an almost pathological feeling of apprehension, which he expresses through dark and complex sketches and later in massive sculptures of hulking, tormented beings. Clara needs to keep moving, seeking the answers to what drives people to evil and insanity. She becomes an acclaimed, if controversial, war photographer, always in a conflict zone, pointing her lens in the face of a soldier about to die, or about to kill.

Paul's and Clara's paths cross in unexpected ways over the years but each time she comes back into Paul's life she brings with her discomfiting news. It is through Clara that he learns about love and betrayal and, eventually, the truth about his father's death.

This is a story of light and dark, of shadows and fears, of forests and meadows, of memory and shame. It's very French and very much about the awkwardness of the truth. There are passages of extreme beauty, such as the descriptions of what Paul experiences as he hews his sculptures from blocks of rock, and there are horrific passages describing pure evil. If you're looking for something light and frothy, don't even consider it.

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