Rachel Perlman is married to Aaron, a “Flatbush Jew.” It is the early/mid- 1950s. She is a displaced person from Berlin, Germany, a Jew who survived the Holocaust and is left with the knowledge her mother perished in a gas chamber. Rachel has suffered deep trauma over part of what she did to survive. Rachel’s uncle (Feter Fritz) also survived after internment in a camp and he also lives in New York. He was her mother’s art agent and was something of a raconteur.. Shadows of Berlin brings together the fragments that are Rachel’s life, from childhood, when she was jealous that the cat had taken to her mother’s beautiful model to that model becoming dangerous to them, as well as other Jews in Berlin when she becomes a “catcher” for the Nazis, identifying and arresting underground Jews.
We experience chapters focused on this model/muse, Rachel’s mother, and others caught up in trying to survive, tumbled up Rachel’s memories and ghostly interactions, throughout the novel. We are privy to a fifties marriage where the nice enough Aaron wants his wife to keep the apartment clean and have a baby. Instead she cracks up at work and spends a night at Bellevue and now she needs to see a costly shrink. We are let into the past and the present that is Uncle Fritz, who lives in poverty and continues to look for the main chance to be the mover and shaker he was in pre-war Berlin. We meed Aaron’s family, witness a Seder with the typically odd mix of extended family, his sister Naomi who is a rebel and smokes pot, his mother whose gifts to Rachel always reflect something where Rachel is personally lacking. Aaron has family. Rachel has … Uncle Fritz, who always wants something from her.
I like the choices Gillham made when he wove the story from present 1950s to pre-war and war years in Berlin– not long ago– yet treated in New York almost like ancient history. Rachel’s life included starving on the streets of Berlin trying not be be caught, facing transport to camps and having to sell at least part of her soul to live one more day, with no future guaranteed. When she looks back, she is forced to reconcile decisions made in a completely deprived past with a bountiful life in the United States. There is excess of everything and to those around her the knowledge of Nazi atrocities is abstract. Most of them saw it in movies shown of camp liberations. Aaron didn’t even serve overseas, but in California, working on USO shows. People around Rachel are horrified, but they are not damaged like Rachel and their efforts to understand her fall short..
The characters are well-developed, often humorous, and most are just trying to make it in their world, some with less success than others. This was definitely a “can’t put it down” novel for me in part because of the array of characters and the choices each make. Some of those we get to know best are Rachel’s ghosts, among them her mother whose voice is strong in Rachel’s mind and not always kind. The novel touches on psychoanalysis and the Millville pill, on a true part of WWII history where a few Jewish people collaborated with the Nazis to turn in Jews, on race relations in the US, and on what it means to figure out how to live our lives, even if they include devastating trauma that can only be imperfectly managed.