four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
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0

A-Skeletons at the FeastIn the waning days of World War II, as attacks by the Russians from the east and Allied forces from the west start to devastate the Third Reich, a diverse group makes its way from Poland through German territory to the Allies’ lines. Among them are Anna Emmerich, the 18-year-old daughter of a wealthy, pro-Reich Prussian farmer, and her mother and younger brother; Anna’s lover, Callum Finnella, a Scottish POW; and Uri Singer, a German Jew who escaped from an Auschwitz-bound train and, now disguised as a Nazi soldier, has learned to kill in order to survive. Their travails test their loyalty, love, and endurance, while putting all-too-human faces on the atrocities of war.
Shaye Areheart. 384 pages. $25. ISBN: 0307394956

Austin-American Statesman 4 of 5 Stars
"This story mixes the nail-biting brutality of The Kite Runner with the emotional intimacy of Anne Frank’s diary." Denise Gamino

Burlington Free Press 4 of 5 Stars
"… nail-biting, heart-ripping, and unforgettable. … What makes Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast such an unusual novel, and ultimately so incredibly thought-provoking, is that it asks the reader to sympathize with these people who were once our enemies." Tom Paine

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Bohjalian makes clear the importance of bearing witness with another viewpoint, that of Cecile, a French Jew among more than 100 starving Jewish women being marched across Poland to work in a war-related factory. … Judging who’s right or wrong is difficult in Skeletons at the Feast, and one senses that’s just the way Bohjalian wants it." Paula L. Woods

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"The journey is intense and fascinating, bringing to the forefront some of the most horrendous atrocities of the war; Bohjalian masterfully presents the desperation of troops who realize their cause is doomed. … Hearing every sensory detail of Anna and Callum’s latest tryst diminishes what he’s trying to achieve and hardly seems on a par with, for example, Bohjalian’s description of German soldiers pushing two wagons full of unsuspecting women prisoners into a bonfire and the sound of the intensifying flames usurping their screams." Jennie Camp

Today Show 4 of 5 Stars
"A Top Ten Summer Read"

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Chris Bohjalian has created a microcosm of that devastating winter of 1945 and, in doing so, has typecast many of his characters: the good German and the sadistic one; the kindly Russian and the bestial one; the slave laborer and the fugitive Jew. … Bohjalian tries a little too hard to be even-handed, yet he makes us care deeply for his characters." Shirley K. Murray

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Right and wrong shift depending on the situation. Ignorance is tolerated and murder is justified. But Bohjalian does posit that one absolute exists: No one wins at war." Dennis Moore

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 2 of 5 Stars
"The problem is that for Skeletons to work Bohjalian has to make the Emmerich clan sympathetic. … [But they] come off as caricatures rather than the full-blooded characters Bohjalian normally creates." Curt Schleier

Critical Summary

Bohjalian’s strength is exploring moral ambiguities, from whether right and wrong are moral absolutes to whether it’s acceptable to address evil with more evil. From the Emmerichs’ support of Hitler to Hitler’s decimation of the Jews, Bohjalian puts a human face on the choices people make and the causes that prompt them to act in complex ways. All viewpoints—the Scottish POW’s, Anna’s, and Uri’s—stand in counterpoint to each other, to overall great effect. One reviewer noted gratuitous sex scenes; another criticized the caricatured Emmerichs and the parallel storyline about two female concentration camp prisoners. Critics agree that even with these flaws, Skeletons is a compelling, harrowing, and often uncomfortable journey that packs a hefty emotional punch.