Memory, by Philippe Grimbert. Published 2008 by Simon & Schuster. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French.
A bestseller in France and winner and nominee for several awards, Memory is a slim little novel about the Holocaust that packs a big punch. It's about a boy named Philippe Grimbert who learns that when his father changed his name from Grinberg to Grimbert, it was to bury more than just his religious identity at a time when France was still reeling from the Second World War and its own shame at its collaboration with the Nazis.
Memory has some things in common with Gypsy Tears, another work of fiction on the Holocaust also based on a true story, and also one where it's difficult to tell fact from fiction. Sometimes these kinds of books can be frustrating, because I'd like to know for sure if I'm reading fiction or fact- it makes a difference to me, to how I evaluate the work and to how I orient myself within it. Over time, I made a decision that when I'm faced with this situation, I try to forget that any part of it might be true and just focus on evaluating the work as fiction. The truth is irrelevant- all that matters to me is whether the story on the page works, whether I care about the characters and whether it hangs together in a satisfying way.
Memory succeeds brilliantly on all fronts. Some people have said they've read this brief book in one or two sittings; it took me a little longer (maybe four sittings) and I'm glad I lingered over it a little. The writing, even in translation, is gorgeous and evocative and hits all the right emotional notes. The story begins in France in the 1960s. Philippe is a weak only child of beautiful, athletic parents, who has always felt like he didn't fit in somehow, that he was always a disappointment. As he talks to a friend of the family and uncovers his parents' secrets, he begins to understand his own place in the world and how he got here, and he finds out that his parents and their relationship are infinitely more complicated than he ever imagined. His discoveries combine with his own coming of age naturally and beautifully, as uncovering their story helps him uncover his own. Haunting, bittersweet and beautiful, Memory is a tiny jewel of a book.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.