Wednesday, April 22, 2009

REVIEW: Sonata for Miriam, by Linda Olsson

Sonata for Miriam, by Linda Olsson. Published 2009 by Penguin.

Click here to buy Sonata for Miriam from your favorite indie bookstore.

Sonata for Miriam, Linda Olsson's latest novel, is a four-star turkey.

It has all the ingredients of a classic crowd-pleaser. A failed love affair. A gifted composer writing music for his dead daughter, a child killed in a senseless, tragic accident. Secrets. A horrible choice a character must make. It's even about the Holocaust. It's got all the elements, but that's the problem. There's so much packed in so tight, that it collapses under the weight of its good intentions.

Swedish-born composer Adam Anker is living in New Zealand with his teenage daughter Miriam when he happens on a photo of another Adam, Adam Lipski, in a museum collection, and is struck because that's his name too- his real name. He does a little research, and luckily enough, Adam Lipski's sister Clara lives nearby. Adam is off and running, researching his family's past in a journey that takes him to Poland in search of his family and back to Sweden, in search of his lost love, Miriam's mother Cecilia, who long ago forced Adam to make a terrible choice.

In between the discovery in the museum and the extended European voyage, Miriam dies, and her death is where the novel starts to break down. Adam doesn't talk about it. He goes on this trip to Poland and Sweden and for three quarters of the book, the reader never finds out what happened to her, how she died, until nearly the very end. Her death is the pivotal event in Adam's life (or so it seems) and Olsson just drops her. I know- Adam is overcome by grief, blah blah blah. It still doesn't make sense to me.

Then there's Cecilia, and the story of Miriam's conception. It's true that Cecilia forced Adam to make a choice, but we never find out why. The choice she offers is callous and senseless, and because she never explains herself, the choice just comes across, at best, as the solipsistic act of a narcissist- who else would do what she does? At worst, the choice comes across as a weak plot device designed to inject drama without any semblance of psychological reality.

Because you know what? It doesn't need the added drama. Holocaust fiction can usually stand on its own without dead-child-and-horrible-choice melodrama- and the whole horrible-choice plot has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Granted, if Olsson took out the melodrama she'd be left with just a bland, unexceptional Holocaust novel, and the book would therefore lose what little appeal it has. None of the characters seem real- they don't talk like real people and they don't act like real people. Here's a sample, when Adam visits with Cecilia:

Adam says, "There is no time here...everything is the same. Time has stood still."
"Is that how it seems to you?" I [Cecilia] said. "I can't tell. What you live with day in, day out, may seem ever the same. But then when you look back, you are reminded of things and people that have been lost, new growth, fundamental changes."
I picked that exchange more or less at random; it takes place when Adam and Cecilia see each other for the first time since Miriam's birth. Tell me- do you talk like that? Do you know anybody who talks like that? Because I don't. Even people on soap operas don't speak so stiffly and formally.

And they don't live in a realistic world. Olsson piles on coincidence after coincidence to make it work. Adam Lipski's sister just happens to live nearby Adam Anker, in New Zealand. Adam makes his fateful discovery on the day that Miriam dies, and, in a crucial twist, he forgot his cellphone that day too. The only thing that would make Miriam's death more tragically contrived is if she had been carrying a basket of kittens. It goes on and on. If you want to read Holocaust fiction, there are better books than Sonata for Miriam. Read Philippe Grimbert's polished gem, Memory, or a thousand other, better novels. If it wasn't for the Holocaust element, Sonata would be just another overwrought melodrama. As it stands, it's an overwrought melodrama and a boring Holocaust story all at once. It's like two bad books for the price of one.