Thursday, 29 August 2013

Rising Up by Evie Woolmore

Tom Macindeor is an itinerant English teacher, spending the summer in Warsaw in the hope of finding out the truth about his grandfather, a Polish resistance fighter. But when he hears the voice of Ela, a young woman trapped in the Jewish Ghetto of 1942, a window opens not just on his past but the future of the ghetto and all those who live in it. Should he share what he knows of their fate, or will Ela's search for the truth about her own family doom them both?
Goodreads Description

I admire Evie Woolmore's courage in tackling a story set in the Warsaw Ghetto. I doubt I could ever do the same. The subject of the holocaust is one which is extremely sensitive and I suspect I could never be confident that my historical research was sufficient to tackle this darkest of periods in human history. 

Evie Woolmore's language and writing style are excellent. As the description above shows, there are two story lines in this book - Tom's story set in the present day and Ela's in 1942 -but the two are linked as the two central characters discover they can talk to each other. As someone who spends a lot of time in the Czech Republic, I was struck by how accurately Evie Woolmore portrays life in Warsaw. There was much here that struck a chord, for example the brightly coloured dyed hair of one of the Polish characters. 

Ela's story opens strongly with the description of her job working for the Germans, which consisted of disposing of the dead, looting their bodies and homes of any valuables. This shows some of the horror of the ghetto. However as the book went on there were times when I found the portrayal of Ela's life less believable, for example I had a problem with the ease with which Ela talks to her sister about a contact with a resistance member.  Ela's family are actually very well-off in terms of most of the  families around them. They are not living six to a room, which was the norm in the ghetto, and they even occasionally eat meat, when thousands of people were dying each month, most of hunger. I would have liked Ela to feel survivor's guilt, perhaps to do something about helping others.  

Both stories are written in the present tense and in the third person. This is essential to the story as at its heart is the fact that Tom and we know the awful truth of what will happen to the inhabitants of the ghetto and Ela's story, but Ela of course does not.  Tom is faced with the dilemma of whether to warn Ela, when she probably can do nothing about her fate. I was reminded of the work of Kate Atkinson, where the magic realism in the book poses philosophical questions and is at the heart of the dramatic tension. But is it right to use magic realism in this way, when the subject matter is so dramatic? Would I have liked the book more if it had simply been Ela's story, perhaps with Tom discovering it? Probably. But I certainly did get drawn in to Ela's story and wanted to see if she survived. 

I was given this book by the author in return for an honest review.
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Evie Woolmore said...

Zoe, thanks for this very thoughtful review of my book. You pose such an interesting question when you ask whether it is "right to use magic realism in this way, when the subject matter is so dramatic?"

My feeling - and I am coincidentally blogging about this next week - on the topic of genre is that it is that very juxtaposition between the magical and the real which allows us to negotiate ways of revisiting the real, when the real is very troublesome. I didn't write Rising Up because I wanted to write about the Holocaust, but I did want to write about the lingering effects of the Holocaust and the ghetto in Warsaw, because when you visit Warsaw they do linger even now. I wanted to find a way to make that lingering real somehow, to explore how memory and knowledge affect the way we consider the past. History can be very objectified, clinicised and rationalised, especially an event as dominant in our global identity as the Second World War and yet, as so many people have recounted, the significant locations of places like Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Warsaw are 'presented' to us neatly while also strongly redolent of their pasts in very unpredictable ways to those who visit. It is the latter I wanted to explore because that is how I experienced Warsaw myself.

When I first wrote this book over ten years go, I wasn't aware of magical realism as a literary genre, at least not in the commercial way it is now. My objective was simply to find a way to construct the story that expressed my own direct experience of walking round Warsaw feeling the constant reminders of the past, and because I think there are so many ghosts (constructed or otherwise), it made sense to me as a storyteller to make those ghosts real. I'm a good researcher, but I'm not a historian and I wouldn't dream of writing an authentic history of WW2 in Warsaw. But I am Tom Macindeor, the central character of the novel, I did go to Warsaw and 'hear' the ghosts of the past as so many tourists do I think, and what turned out to be magical realism gave me a way to use fiction to explore that.

Zoe Brooks said...

Thank you Evie for allowing me to review your book.

I know what you mean about hearing ghosts. I spend a lot of time in Prague, where you get the sense of the past too. I have described my first visit there, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, in my Czech blog. The air seemed full of angels, both weeping and rejoicing.

I studied history at Oxford, which makes me so aware of historical accuracy that I doubt I would ever write a historical novel. I would never succeed in researching the book to my satisfaction. I might get away with writing about the dark ages I suppose, but nothing so recent as the holocaust.

It seems to me that the problem you have is that the drama of Ela's story means that Tom's experience and dilemma seem less important.

Do comment again with the link to your blog post when it's up.

Evie Woolmore said...

So, as promised, I blogged a bit more about this issue of magical realism and historical fiction - and because my comments here first time around actually made sense, I have included some of them in the blog at

Zoe - what a beautiful way to describe Prague. I know what you mean. I once stayed in that extraordinary hotel on the outskirts which has all those communist murals in relief on the outside (might it be a Holiday Inn, I forget) and it is still the most extraordinarily historic city, in the original sense of the word.

It's an interesting point you make about the relative weights of Tom's and Ela's stories. Tom's journey is of course rather different, because firstly his goal is very different to Ela's (she is concerned with her survival, which makes anything else inevitably less significant) and secondly, his priorities change and he is, in a way, quite slow to realise that. He needs Ela to help him understand himself, both literally and in the larger 'cosmic' sense.

It's not until the very end of the book that he really understands the significance of the past in terms of the impact on his future and on the way his understanding of his own identity changes. And, without giving too much away, while we find out what happens to Ela, we can only anticipate what happens to Tom in the wake of what he finds out about his family at the end of the book. So they are unequal in that sense, but deliberately so, and I think Tom realises several times that what he is asking of Ela is terribly insignificant. That is in some senses a metaphor for the challenge you identified of writing about 'significant' history - that other stories are somehow less important. But they still beg to be told, to find their own endings, to start new stories, weave new histories.