“The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of bravery and love in the face of evil.”
I seldom write reviews of best selling fiction because everyone else does it. Indeed, as I write this, Goodreads has over 5k reviews for The Book of Lost Names (and more than 43K ratings.) And, yep, it got a lot of five star reviews, which are indeed well deserved. This is a really good novel. A friend loaned me her copy, which she wants back, so I gotta write this before I send it along.
Harmel also wrote The Winemaker’s Wife, which my friend loved, and that is one reason she decided to read The Book of Lost Names. Author Harmel apparently got the idea for Lost Names while researching the former title. Both are set in Europe, during World War II. In The Book of Lost Names, the point of view character remains the same, but there are some deliberate time skips as the story moves from 2005, wherein the main character, Eva, is quite elderly, and 1942-46, when a young Eva spent several months forging documents in order to save people from the Germans who were occupying France (and threatening all of civilization.) Eva’s story is a real page turner, as there are moments of suspense, of hardship, and (thankfully) success, both in saving children from the Nazi war on Jews, and in Eva’s growing affection for a fellow member of the resistance. While I don’t want to include any spoilers, the book in the title refers to a code added to an existing book in the library of the local Catholic church, and the code included the real names of children who were perhaps too young to remember their birth names, which had to be altered so they could travel using forged documents.
As I read the novel, especially in the beginning, when Eva’s father is arrested, in Paris, by the French police, who were acting as agents for the occupying Nazis who were seeking out Jews to deport to concentration camps further east, I couldn’t help but think about modern times. The United States has been in an ever more conflicted state, with some people believing everything put forth by any government agency. Other people, equally patriotic but more skeptical, wonder about the integrity of those same institutions. Whether or not you, dear reader, believe that having Martha Stewart serve time in prison, believe the FBI should be conducting armed raids on the homes of politicians, or believe that the CDC is the best source of information on viral intervention, is really up to you. However, in order to have a totalitarian regime, having citizens who distrust other citizens is absolutely necessary. Fear is one of the most valuable tools in motivating people. The Nazis certainly used this, as did Soviet Russia.
In The Book of Lost Names, a neighbor is complicit in the effort to arrest Eva’s family. Not only were the family “dirty Jews” but they had a nice apartment that was available after the evening of the arrest. Later, many of the townspeople of a fictional spot in southern France work together to assist Jews and even downed Allied airmen across the border to Switzerland. But, also there is considerable danger, because some citizens cooperated with the Nazi invaders in hopes of securing favor of government officials. Much of the suspense is derived from not knowing the allegiance of certain characters. Trust is such a delicate matter, then and now.
Night, by Elie Wiesel is a non-fiction memoir of the Holocaust, and it also begins with the trust of the citizens in their government. Elie’s elders simply could not believe that their government would betray them. And, Night is more gut-wrenching than Lost Names, but both of them offer lessons for today’s reader.