Title: The White Space Between
Author: Ami Sands Brodoff
Publisher: Second Story Press
Read: January 17-19, 2013
A family's story of the Holocaust lies buried in the soil of a graveyard in Prague, in the old neighborhoods of Montreal, in the serenity of a small New Jersey town, and in the memory of Jana - a woman finally asked to bear witnessFar from the landscapes of her earlier life, Jana raised her daughter, Willow, on the beautiful scrapbooks she kept of her own childhood in Prague before World War II. But her stories end with the beginning of the Holocaust, and Willow knows little of her mother's life during the war and its aftermath. Jana's memories of this time are so guarded that Willow is uncertain who her father is - the answer left behind in Montreal, the city where Jana first settled after the war.When both Willow and Jana find themselves back in Montreal, the past can no longer be hidden. New loves are found and lost loves rekindled, and mother and daughter decide to journey to Prague to unearth the stories that can no longer stay buried.
The only one of her family to survive the Holocaust and internment in a concentration camp, Jana Ivanova flees post-war Germany to start a new life in Canada. Now in her eighties, Jana has almost succeeded in leaving her past behind – she has adopted a new name – Jane Ives – raised a daughter to adulthood and kept her wartime experiences secret even from those closest to her. Only the number tattooed on her forearm and the nightmares she still regularly suffers are niggling reminders of her past and her losses.
Willow, Jane’s daughter, has grown up in New Jersey with stories and photos of her mother’s childhood years growing up in Prague and her early years in Montreal, but she knows very little about her mother’s suffering during the war, nor Willow’s father, a man shrouded in mystery who died before Willow was born. Despite Willow’s curiosity, Jane has never confided in her in an effort to protect her from the suffering she had to endure. Now in nearly forty, Willow is a loner, more comfortable with the puppets she makes than flesh-and-blood people. When she is invited to Montreal as an artist in residence and puppeteer teacher she accepts – and is reminded of some of her mother’s stories about her life as a new immigrant in the city.
“Willow thinks of a lifetime of questions, empty spaces, the eerie feeling of not being able to ask questions when she was – is still – full to bursting with them.”
So when Jane visits Willow in Montreal and tells her that she has decided to tell her story to the “Witness Foundation”, an organisation collecting and documenting testimonies of the Holocaust, Willow is surprised. Together the two women embark on a journey of discovery of past secrets, which will give Willow some of the answers she has craved for so long.
The title, The White Space Between, refers to the spaces between the letters, the silences, the unsaid things. There are many unspoken things between Jane and Willow, secrets which have shaped their relationship and Willow’s future. In the little snippets of memories Jane recalls throughout the story, the reader learns a little bit about her past, but many unanswered questions still remain. Through past and present conversations between mother and daughter, Willow slowly gains an insight into some of the memories her mother has tried to protect her from.
I have read many different books about how the experiences of the Holocaust have shaped not only the survivors’ lives, but also that of their children. I have also experienced the effects of hidden secrets and suppressed suffering on families through past encounters with Holocaust survivors who have shred their stories with me. It is a subject which is close to my heart, and I welcomed the opportunity to read Brodoff’s novel. Unfortunately I found both Jane and Willow quite remote and hard to connect with, apart from a few snippets where Jane shares Jana’s memories of the war with the reader, which were very touching and sad. But overall, I felt like an outsider looking in, instead of being a part of the story, seeing the scenery, feeling the emotion. Even when Jane and Willow return to Prague to put the past at rest, I found it hard to engage, to share their emotion – Relief? Sadness? Joy? I am still puzzled as to how Jane’s past has really affected Willow, how knowing may have changed her, shaped her differently.
All in all, the novel left me longing for more – more information, more emotional connection and more insight. Maybe I needed to read more between the lines ….
For people interested in novels addressing the topic of Holocaust survivors and the effect of their past on their family and children, I can also recommend:
Lola Bensky by Lily Brett REVIEW
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
I read this book as part of the 2013 Monthly Keyword Reading Challenge - and it contained the key word chosen for January: "white".