Thanks to NetGalley and to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Jonathan Cape for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This is the first book I’ve read by David Grossman. I hope it won’t be the last.
The description probably gives a fair idea of the plot. Yes, we are in Netanya, Israel, and we are spectators of the act of a stand-up comedian, Dovelah Greenstein (or Dov G.). He is 57 years old (as he repeatedly reminds us through the evening), skinny (almost emaciated), and seems to become increasingly desperate as the night goes. He tells jokes, anecdotes, makes comments about the city, the spectators, Jews (yes, the self-deprecation readers of Philip Roth, for example, will be familiar with), says some politically incorrect things, tells a number of jokes (some really funny, some odd, some quite old), and insists on telling us a story about his childhood, despite the audience’s resistance to listening to it.
The beauty (or one of them) of the novel, is the narrator. Yes, I’m back to my obsession with narrators. The story is told in the first-person by Avishai Lazar, a judge who was unceremoniously removed from his post when he started becoming a bit too vocal and opinionated in his verdicts. The two characters were friends as children, and Dov calls Avishai asking him to attend his performance. His request does not only come completely out of the blue (they hadn’t seen each other since they were in their teens), but it is also quite weird. He does not want a chat, or to catch up on old times. He wants the judge to tell him what he sees when he looks at him. He wants him to tell him what other people see, what essence they perceive when they watch him. Avishai, who is a widower and still grieving, is put-off by this and reacts quite rudely, but eventually, agrees.
Although the novel is about Dov’s performance and his story (his need to let it all hang out, to explain his abuse but also his feeling of guilt about a personal tragedy), that is at times light and funny, but mostly sad and even tragic, he is not the character who changes and grows the most during the performance (his is an act of exorcism, a way of getting rid of his demons). For me, the story, sad and depressing as it can be at times (this is not a book for everybody, and I suspect many readers will empathise with quite a few of the spectators who leave the performance before it ends), is ultimately about redemption. Many narrators have told us in the past (The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness) that in telling somebody else’s story, they are also telling their own. This is indeed the case here. The judge (at first we don’t know who is narrating the story, but we get more and more details as the performance advances) is very hostile at first and keeps wondering why he is there, and wanting to leave. But at some point, the rawness, the determination, and the sheer courage of the comedian, who keeps going no matter how difficult it gets, break through his protective shell and he starts to question his own actions and his life. If this might be Dev’s last performance, in a way it is a beginning of sorts, especially for the judge.
Readers become the ersatz club audience, and it is very difficult to stop watching something that is so extreme and desperate, but it is also difficult to keep watching (or reading) as it becomes more and more painful. It is as if we were spectators in a therapy session where somebody is baring his soul. We feel as if we are intruding on an intimate moment, but also that perhaps we are providing him with some comfort and support to help him go through the process. Although other than the two main characters we do not get to know the rest in detail, there are familiar types we might recognise, and there is also a woman who knew the comedian when he was a child and, perhaps, plays the part of the therapist (a straight faced one, but the one he needs).
The book is beautifully written and observed. Grossman shows a great understanding of psychology and also of group interactions. Although I am not an expert on stand-up comedy, the dynamics of the performance rang true to me. I cannot compare it to the original, but the translation is impressive (I find it difficult to imagine anybody could do a better job, and if the original is even better, well…).
As I said before, this is not a book for everybody. Although it is quite short, it is also slow and intense (its rhythm is that of the performance, which ebbs and flows). None of the characters (except, perhaps, the woman) are immediately sympathetic, and they are flawed, not confident enough or too confident and dismissive, over-emotional or frozen and unable to feel, and they might not seem to have much in common with the reader, at first sight. This is not a genre book (literary fiction would be the right label, if we had to try and give it one), there is no romance (or not conventional romance), no action, no heroes or heroines, and not much happens (a whole life happens, but not in the usual sense). If you are interested in characters that are real in their humanity (for better and for worse), don’t mind a challenge, and want to explore something beyond the usual, I recommend you this book.
I don't know what to say except it was a beautifully written novel given the subject matter. It's never easy to write about this particular period in history and never will be. However at least what an author can do is make it readable and make it a good story worthwhile to read.
You really do feel for Stasha and Pearl once they're herded into the camp and are used as experimental fodder to play with. You see both of them mature rapidly and have their childhoods robbed from them near the start of the novel. They were already close to begin with yet because of the circumstances they're closer with them trying to hold and support each other. It's almost heartbreaking to read because without one, the other just simply feels they don't exist.
As to when Pearl disappears, you feel the separation anxiety as you progress through the novel. You feel Stasha's pain and emptiness. Her other half is gone and she has no idea if she's alive or not. You can feel the void within Stasha and as you continue reading, you're still feeling the pain and you're wondering throughout the novel if she will ever see Pearl again. This is great writing on the authors part as you can distinctly feel what the characters are feeling throughout the novel.
There's a small cast of characters in this book. Some stand out more than others. Bruna stood out for me a lot. I loved every aspect of her and her strength. Then you have Peter, Feliks and the nursing staff at the camp. You don't get attached to them as much as Pearl and Stasha are the main ones to be focused on. However, for me, I really loved Bruna.
The only criticism I would have for this book is I found it sometimes a little too wordy and poetic at times. It made it for some areas of the book hard to follow - it would be best to avoid this type of writing. Yes it sets the mood and makes it melancholy but the subject matter itself is already sad and tragic to begin with. I believe that's enough as it is.
Definitely recommended for those that are interested in this particular historical period.
Number the Stars is the story about Annemarie, who is growing up during WWII. When her best friend Ellen goes into hiding due to Jewish persecution, she learns a lot about bravery and the world she lives in.
Number the Stars received a Lexile score of 670L, making it readable for most 6th grade readers. This book can be used in conjunction with history to teach about historical perspectives. Students will gain an understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust. Students can also analyze Annemarie's perspective of the events, and predict what Ellen may have felt throughout the story.