The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw
|The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Phil Lewis|
|Summary: A haunting and delicate examination of love and survival in Nazi occupied Eastern Europe. A powerful read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: March 2017|
|Publisher: Legend Press|
|External links: Author's website|
Stephan Collishaw has achieved a rare feat – a novel set amidst the horrors of Nazi tyranny that does not shy away from human suffering, but does not drown in it either.
The Song of the Stork tells the story of Yael, a 15-year-old Jewish girl on the run from the Nazis, living in the wilderness somewhere (I think) around the Polish/Lithuanian border. The exact location isn't made clear, but it's a place of bitterly cold winters. We meet Yael just as her companion, Rivka, succumbs to illness, leaving Yael to fend for herself in the forest. She stumbles across a house belonging to Aleksei, a dark and mysterious mute with a love of Russian literature. Relations are at first cool, with Yael forced to sleep in the hen-coop, and Aleksei bringing her blankets and water (itself an act of incredible courage in the circumstances). As time progresses a quiet attachment develops between the pair, and Yael moves first into the house and eventually into Aleksei's bed.
It's very much a book of two halves – the first is a tightly controlled and delicate examination of the love that develops between Yael and Aleksei. The sparse writing style combined with the skilful evocation of nature and the changing seasons creates an almost ethereal atmosphere. Threat and danger constantly lurk, but they're pushed aside by the blissful domesticity of daily routine – reading Pushkin together, making tea, chopping wood. Not a word of dialogue ever passes between the couple, and it's a testament to the writer's abilities that their relationship is probably the strongest part of the book.
The second half is perhaps inevitable, as the Germans come and shatter Yael and Aleksei's domestic haven, and Yael escapes through a window and into the forest. She falls in with a group of Jewish partisans who pass the days foraging food and carrying out guerilla attacks on Nazi targets. The second half can feel a little directionless at times, but this may be deliberate – to echo Yael's experience of a directionless existence, moving constantly and not knowing if there is an end in sight.
I've read some reviews that criticise the book's ending, citing too many loose ends and unanswered questions. I feel these reviews are missing the point somewhat – Yael's story, stretching over most of the war, is a story of survival against the odds. It is not a story that could ever have a firm conclusion – these just didn't exist in the chaos of the war. Part of the experience of the partisans is uncertainty about the war itself – various and sometimes contradictory rumours about the Red Army's progress appear frequently. Living with uncertainty is one of the many trials that Yael faces, therefore we, as the reader, should also experience a degree of uncertainty.
This is a remarkable book, one that really gives a sense of how terrifying it must have been for Yael, and the strength and endurance she shows in her efforts to survive. The writing is sparse, delicate and beautiful, particularly in the description of the changing seasons and the natural world. The duality of the cold winters is stark – protecting Yael and Aleksei (snug with their log burning stove) from the outside world in the first half; almost killing Yael and the partisans in the second.
I'd recommend this book to anybody. It's a powerful and engaging story of survival that will stay with you long after you've finished the final page.
Further reading suggestion: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
You can read more book reviews or buy The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw at Amazon.com.
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