Shadows and Wings ~ Niki Tulk

  • Title: Shadows and Wings
  • Author: Niki Tulk
  • Genre: Mainstream
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Own
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  Tomas, a cellist and dreamer, denies the devastating changes happening in 1930’s Germany—until he is drafted into Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Many years later, having emigrated to Australia, he raises his granddaughter Lara to love music and birds. He also chooses to hide from her a terrible secret.

When her beloved Opa dies, 22 year-old Lara receives a shadow box of mysterious ornaments that force her to confront his past. Seeking to understand his years of silence, and to find a way through her own grief, she travels to Germany—the objects her only guide.

Shadows & Wings is a novel of cyclic journeys between hemispheres, the connections between ourselves and those we can never know, and the haunting power of art, love and dreams.

Review:  This book affected me. It stirred a cauldron of emotions, a brew so complex I can’t identify all the ingredients. But I’ll give it a try.

First – a disclaimer. I got the book from the author in exchange for an honest review, but I was apprehensive before I started reading. This novel is literary fiction, and I don’t usually read literary. More often then not, literary opuses bore me. I’m a genre reader. Fluffy romance and magical escapades are more to my taste, but despite my preferences, Tulk’s novel gripped me from the first page. It wasn’t an easy read but it held me in thrall and wouldn’t let me go until the last screen on my Kindle.

The plot is compiled of two interweaving lines. One is the story of a young woman, Lara, growing up in Australia in the 1970s. Although she knows that her beloved grandpa Tomas is German, she never associated him with the atrocities of the WWII until he died in 1994 and she found an SS lapel pin among his few keepsakes. Was her kind grandfather a monster? A war criminal? Unable to believe it, she nevertheless needs to discover the truth. With her thoughts awhirl and her emotions in turmoil, she travels to Germany to find out.

The second plotline tells the story of Tomas, from his childhood in the 1930 in a German village, through his maturing as a student and a young musician, playing cello for the Berlin Philharmonics, while Hitler rises to power and Nazis march across Europe, to his years as a Wehrmacht soldier after he was drafted. Raised by his free-thinking luthier father, Tomas doesn’t approve of the Nazi ideology. Neither does he rebel. When he is conscripted into the army and sent to the eastern front, he kills – the enemy soldiers and the civilian Jews.

No shots are fired on the pages, no battles described, but the reader is privy to Tomas’s troubled thoughts, his grief and his shame. Tomas knows: if he doesn’t obey orders, he wouldn’t survive. Like so many in those times, he conforms to stay alive, but after the war, his conformity haunts him. Wrecked by guilt, unable to wash the innocent blood off his hands, he can’t stay in Germany, can’t play music, can’t forgive himself. Self-hatred drives him to immigration. And although he manages to build a new life for himself in Australia, he never plays his cello again.

The novel jumps constantly between Tomas’s and Lara’s POVs, throwing the reader from the past to the present, from Tomas’s pre-war and war years and his tortured conscience to Lara’s search in modern Berlin and her quest to find herself. The structure is a bit jarring, and some of its elements, like Lara’s childhood years, seem totally unnecessary, slowing the pacing and weakening the overall story arch.

Multiple musical allusions don’t enrich the story either. Instead, they clutter it, as do the author’s frequent and overly long descriptions, lyrical but extraneous. The novel would’ve been better with some tightening. But all those faults are small compared to the huge and controversial theme the author dared to tackle: the communal guilt of the Germans after the war.

From the war veterans to the youngsters born decades later, should they all keep the memory and the guilt alive? Or should they forget and move on? After all, none of the living Germans participated in the Nazi’s evil. In the book, Lara’s new friends, students in Berlin in 1995, discuss the issue:

“People think at the back of every German is a Nazi, just waiting for the moment to come out and shoot them.”

“It sucks,” Annika added, twisting the stem of her wineglass. “You are not aloud to be proud of being German.”

“No,” Jacquie agreed. “That is dangerous. Patriotism is dangerous.”

“Germany is a thing of the past,” Zak said sagely. “We can never lose the Holocaust. It will always be here. We are always being reminded. … We will never be forgiven.”

So much bitterness and anguish and pride in being who they are – grandchildren of the German soldiers. Should these kids suffer for the sins of their grandparents? They didn’t choose to be born there. They didn’t do anything wrong. How much backbone does the country have to remind its citizens again and again, with every generation: remember! How much courage does it take to acknowledge publicly and loudly, for the entire world to hear: We were wrong. We are sorry. How deep a conscience does such an acknowledgement require?

As I read, I felt compassion for those kids. My heart ached for Tomas, for his tormented soul. He was clearly a good man. Was he guilty if he killed under orders? He blamed himself, but should I blame him? Or others like him? Were only his leaders responsible?

Neither the author of this book nor I know the answers. Only questions remain. But I know that no matter how the guilt is assigned politically, on the personal level, I can’t forgive and forget. Almost against my will, I blame the Germans, all of them, for the Holocaust.

I’m Jewish. The Holocaust touched my family. Both sets of my grandparents survived the war: they evacuated. But my grandmother’s relatives stayed in Moldavia when the Nazis came. None survived. The old folks, the women, the children – everyone perished.

Could something like that be forgiven in theory? Strangely enough, in practice, I don’t feel hatred towards the few Germans I’ve met. They are nice people. For example, there is this girl, Gaby, a charming student from Munich. For the past few years, she has been coming to Vancouver every summer to volunteer at our Jewish library.

Why does she do it? Why spend every summer at a small, boring local library instead of some exciting vacation adventures with her friends? I asked her once. She said all the right things: the different culture, the new continent, the English immersion. But I can’t rid myself of the notion that she is trying in some way to atone for what her great-grandparents did in the war, even though she has never met them. She is the fourth generation. Her grandparents were children when the war started. What drives this girl? Does she carry the guilt for the war like a gene?

In the Tulk’s novel, Lara’s friends mentioned that visiting the sites of the death camps was part of the school curriculum for every German child. Is it still true, I wonder? Has Gaby seen Auschwitz? Could we all benefit from such a long memory?  

The novel asks many questions but doesn’t answer any of them. I guess it’s up to us to discover the answers for ourselves.

Highly recommended.