Book Review: 'THE EARTH IS SINGING', by Vanessa Curtis. Tues 17/02/2015
Based on the true story of the tragedy which befell the Jews of Riga, capital of Latvia, 'The Earth Is Singing' is the latest book by Vanessa Curtis, author of 'The Haunting Of Tabitha Grey' and the 'Zelah Green' books. A heart-rending tale of love, loss, betrayal and survival, the book was released on 27th January 2015, International Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. (This is one of a number of books released to coincide with the centenary of World War One and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, joining 'The Undertaking' by Audrey Magee, 'Opal Plumstead' by Jacqueline Wilson, 'Leningrad Siege and Symphony' by Brian Moynahan, etc. etc.)
The novel centres on three generations of women, Hannah Michelson, a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl, and her mother and grandmother, as they rapidly realise the departure of the Russians and Communism from their country isn't a blessing, but in fact, a precursor to a greater evil.
The story is written as a first person recount from the point of view of Hanna. We discover how Hannah and her family had been forced out of their home by the Russians and moved to a scanty apartment block across town. We learn how much she misses her native Latvian father since he was mysteriously 'sent away'. We share in her whimsical reminiscence of her dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, and her growing love for Uldis, a childhood friend whom she has grown close to. However, this is all made redundant with the arrival of the German army. Because the alarming headline in the Tevija, the national newspaper, declares that 'Jews must perish as a culture'! Because Hannah's mother and grandmother are Jews, so that makes her one as well. And with the public persecution of fellow Jews increasing with disturbing regularity, they eventually find themselves caught up in the full-blown horrors of the Nazi invasion. What follows is a highly emotional set of events as Hannah, her family, and fellow Jews of Riga, are forced onto a path that will eventually lead to their doom.
It is a tale that definitely deserves to be told, and proves a riveting read. The story gains in momentum, evoking a resonant sense of emotion and melancholy, right up to its conclusion. However, placing sentiment to one side, the overriding plot is, unfortunately, wholly unoriginal. The subject matter and the scenarios depicted have been tackled before on numerous occasions, both in books and film & television. Similar to this book, we had the holocaust told from the perspective of a teenage girl in 'The Devil's Arithmetic'. On Page 49, Hannah's family receive the news that the Great Choral Synagogue has been burned down with 300 Jews locked inside. In the film, 'The Reader', SS Guards stand accused of letting 300 Jewish women die in a burning church. In the film 'Ghetto', after the Nazi annihilation of 55,000 Jews, the remaining 15,000 survivors are squeezed into a seven-block ghetto, drawing parallels to what happens in this book. The risks and fears of families who have harboured Jews in secret were encountered in 'The Book Thief', 'The Hiding Place' and the opening scene in 'Inglourious Basterds'.
Etc, etc. In fact, similarities can be traced all the way back to 'The Diary Of Anne Frank'.
Another drawback is the unconvincing and somewhat trite portrayal of young love. Of course, this book is intended for young adults / teenagers, and the narrative has to be accessible, but nevertheless, one does not feel enough for the bond between Hannah and Uldis, and ultimately, his betrayal is half-expected and does not come as much of a shock.
Additionally, at times, the dialogue exchange borders on absurdity. On Page 148, Hannah, her mother and grandmother, are caught by armed Gestapo soldiers while attempting to escape via the roof. Hannah finds that she has been betrayed by Uldis. They are asked to identify themselves, which Hannah's mother does on their behalf. You would expect Hannah and her grandmother to be frozen with terror at this point. Instead they casually converse, about Hannah not knowing her grandmother's real name and her being an enigma. Her grandmother even follows this up with playful pinch of her cheek! Right in front of armed soldiers who will shoot to kill without a moment's notice! And then, on Page 211, Hannah thinks aloud that she is "starting to loathe Uldis Lapa". Four chapters later, his betrayal surely spelling doom for her entire family, and she is only STARTING to loathe Uldis?!!
Having said that, it is an absorbing story, and book holds itself together very well. 'Chapter Nineteen' is one of the most horrifying, heart-wrenching, and tear inducing you will read. Although this and several sections of the book are clearly inappropriate for younger readers, the book is very accessible for the intended teenage / young adult audience. And it is a great first book for readers who have never read on this subject matter before. In summary, an accomplished book. Deeply moving.