Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
Behind a rather weak title lies a quietly charming and feisty historical novel with an ambitious approach to the legacy of WWII through the physical remnants of priceless artefacts that have passed through various hands since the Nazi occupation. A locket binds together separate narratives that move from American troops in 1945 to a jaded Israeli art dealer trading in the ambiguities of ownership that the Holocaust had created. Waldman approaches the ethical dilemmas and historical obscurities of her themes with a light touch that creates a readable and occasionally stimulating novel with roundly likeable characters and one particularly entertaining feminist dwarf.
Love and Treasure separates into roughly three sections: An American soldier in Hungary after the holocaust, his granddaughter in Israel after his death, and a charming third act that follows a Freud-like psychiatrist in 1920s Vienna. Waldman succeeds in creating tension in post-War Hungary; blame, exploitation and the continued suffering of holocaust survivors is introduced through the disorientation and earnestness of an American soldier, Jack. Jack tries to romance a Hungarian survivor amidst the devastation in Salzburg and fruitlessly tries to protect the riches seized by the Nazis from the Jewish community from his military superiors. Jack’s anguish remains in the locket that he takes himself and is beside himself with guilt as he approaches death in 2013. It’s then up to Jack’s granddaughter, Natalie, to find the locket’s rightful owner. From refugees trying to smuggle themselves out of Hungary to reach Israel, to the brown water served in lieu of coffee in the crumbling cafes, Waldman displays both skill in prose and historical detail.
Waldman creates a strong structure and plot that keeps momentum where there are risks of the volume of characters and themes making the novel lag. From Natalie’s disastrous marriage to a bubbling feud between the Israeli art dealer and a holocaust academic, Waldman signals to an array of stories within the novel that could be expanded and add to the richness of the multiple worlds that she creates. The ambition of the novel lies in Waldman’s engagement with issues that aren’t confined to the past: the struggle of ownership over Jewish property seized by the Nazis is still problematic and characters in different sections argue over the relationship between the legacy of the holocaust and Israel. A scene where smugglers in Salzburg despair at the physical state of the holocaust survivors they are moving over the border and discuss how futile their presence will be in Israel contrasts the hope of survivors with the realities of their displacement.
Love and Treasure isn’t the most labyrinthine historical novel, but is a warm, intelligent and committed work that goes beyond mere description to engage in a dialogue with the issues that it presents.
REVIEWER: Jazz Croft
TITLE: Love and Treasure
AUTHOR(S): Ayelet Waldman