The Seventh Well by Fred Wander

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The Seventh Well by Fred Wander

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Life goes on is the message of this Holocaust novel, when one can fathom it through the diverse elements that add up to a slightly too obscure poetic work for some. It is certainly different to many Jewish survivor works, but is that a good thing?
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 192 Date: February 2008
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1847080226

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This book refuses to let me review it in any of my normal patterns. I can say where it starts – in a WW2 Nazi death camp – and indeed where it ends – in a WW2 Nazi death camp; however the whole point is that there is an entire world in between.

It is as if Wander has said to the Nazis I see your concentration camp, and I raise you…. Wander's concentration, then, has an entire world – boys fighting, people falling in love, going to art galleries, reciting their favourite literature, celebrating the Sabbath, ignoring Jehovah's Witnesses, making up stories, Jews from Spain to Prague and from all points in between – all elements of Jewish life, going on in flashback, in the camps, in the narrator's mind.

I have to confess to having read a lot of Holocaust literature, and if pressed I couldn't tell you exactly why – it also seems that I would find such a work flawed for not confirming my own mental images. Such as this book – there is a surprising lack of detail about the routine, the reasons and the reality of the death camps. Beyond an early mental diatribe about people who stash the daily bread ration about their body and nibble occasionally, as opposed to eat it immediately for what meagre calories it provides, there is a long portion of the book before the torments, turmoil and toll of the Final Solution are apparent.

This book is certainly not an easy map to Wander's own time, although it would appear to tally with the journey he made across the continent – leaving French camps for eastern, and forced to partake in at least one Death March. It is marked as a novel, although for all intents and purposes – there is no beginning, no clearly fixed middle, and an ending I'll leave you to find – it is a set of linked short works – chapters of six to thirty pages long. Characters drift in and out, elements emerge from a fog of poetic prose, and there seems little rhyme nor reason for many decisions taken by the author. There is no attempt at a linear timeline, for one, and I was left frustrated that the point of the work was not more clearly given.

Wander has the human spirit as his subject, and ponders on the way it might drip drip away due to the concentration camps, or instead just choose to fling itself across the ditch at the metal fence and get shot. There is no other option – escape is bluntly futile, as in one youth's experience. For some the drip drip will be to their taste – dripping on soft stone and eroding coloured layers to reveal many facets of life. For myself however I found the watery sense of the telling a little too much to wade through.

The book forms a definitive edition of this work – I guess the translation is spot on, the afterword and other details in the extras are interesting. And while it matches my expectations with some elements – the blasé reportage of people dying in an unexpected order (because let's face it so many had only that left for them to do) – there are also flaws.

More work was needed from the publishers in making all the Jewish elements clearer for the lay audience. And as for Wander himself, the narrator is just unapproachable – he is merely a survivor, reporting things in a broken style that crosses the bridge from artistically and poetically obscured to wilfully hard to engage in too often. Not much, apart from labour, movement, and not being called for the final transport, ever happens to him as a person, and as odd as it is to say, those books where such details are given us in full hard-hitting detail are easier to read.

I can recommend this to the small, select audience for Holocaust literature going well beyond the norm in an artistic, and poetic style, but beyond that I can only warn that the work is not the easiest, clearest nor approachable work on the subject.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If you have an interest in the Holocaust you might appreciate My Enemy's Cradle by Sarah Young

Booklists.jpg The Seventh Well by Fred Wander is in the Top Ten Tube Reads.

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