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'Life Of Objects' Tells A Cautionary WWII Fairy Tale

Sep 19, 2012
Originally published on September 20, 2012 11:25 am

Susanna Moore's latest novel, The Life of Objects, is a slim World War II saga that reads like a cautionary fairy tale: It's packed with descriptions of ornate furniture and paintings, lavish banquets, demons and diamonds. At the center of the story is a young girl bewitched by her own desire to live a larger life, a wish that's granted with grim exactitude. Clearly, The Life of Objects is not your father's standard-issue World War II novel; although, Moore's narrative angle on the war does remind me of Edmund de Waal's extraordinary 2010 memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes. In both books, the capricious nature of war — to obliterate or overlook — is explored through the fate of an aristocratic family's collection of fine art.

Our heroine and narrator in this novel is Beatrice Palmer, the only child of Protestant shopkeepers in the west of Ireland. The word Beatrice repeatedly uses to describe herself is "greedy" — greedy, not for money, but for something to happen. When the story opens in 1938, Beatrice, out of boredom, has taught herself how to make lace while she stands behind the counter of her family's shop. Beatrice explains that she's not allowed to read there, "lest it appear that I gave myself airs."

Soon enough, Beatrice's yearning for adventure is answered: A European countess, who's visiting the local landed gentry, sweeps into the shop, surveys the lacework, and whisks Beatrice off to Berlin, where she's to make tablecloths and the like for a wealthy couple, Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg. There's a Jane Eyre feel to Beatrice's arrival at the fabulous Metzenburg mansion, which is eerily near-empty of staff because of the coming war.

Instead of making lace, Beatrice is put to work packing up the Metzenburgs' array of priceless tchotchkes: "turned ivory" sculptures that are to be crated in barley; Old Master paintings rolled up pencil tight; and the Empress Josephine's yellow diamond sewn into a coat hem. Most of this treasure will be buried on the grounds of the Metzenburgs' country estate outside Berlin, where the family retreats for the duration. Felix, an otherwise good enough German, is on the outs, politically, with the Fuhrer; besides, as Beatrice tells us, Felix would much rather pursue his quaint connoisseur's life, satisfying "his compulsion to limit the world to the exquisite."

Fat chance, not with those tanks ready to roll into Poland. The tension of this novel arises out of that disjunction between the static, gorgeously adorned life of the Metzenburgs and the depravity of war roiling just outside their gates. Moore is rightly celebrated for her lithe style as a writer and, in so many passages here, she nimbly jumps back and forth over the boundaries of the Metzenburg estate to give readers a sense of the chaos that's inevitably seeping through their charmed defenses. Here's Beatrice skittishly recalling the year 1943, a season of losses, outside the great house and in, as well as cosmic instability:

The butcher in the village disappeared that winter with his wife and twin sons ... An object left momentarily on a table — an inkwell or a branch of witch hazel carried from the woods — was gone when I returned for it, and an apple or a dish of almonds disappeared even if I hadn't left the room.

One night, ... I thought that I could hear thunder, but I decided that it was only the hundreds of military transports on their way to the Eastern Front. When the ... earth began to shake, I knew that it wasn't the lorries but the hum of hundreds of planes.

By war's end, Beatrice and her employers will be excavating that treasure she buried to barter for coffee made of roasted acorns, while marauding Russian troops violate their enchanted zone of neutrality. Moore doesn't exactly tell a "new" war story here; but, through Beatrice, she speaks of all-too-familiar atrocities in such a spellbinding way that she once again compels readers to, once again, listen. If the Brothers Grimm had tackled the rise and fall of the Third Reich, they might well have produced a tale that reads like The Life of Objects.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of Susanna Moore's seventh novel "The Life of Objects." It takes readers into the familiar fictional territory of World War II. But Maureen says that nothing else about this novel is typical. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Susanna Moore's latest novel, "The Life of Objects," is a slim World War II saga that reads like a cautionary fairy tale. It's packed with descriptions of ornate furniture and paintings, lavish banquets, demons and diamonds.

At the center of the story is a young girl bewitched by her own desire to live a larger life, a wish that's granted with grim exactitude. Clearly, "The Life of Objects" is not your father's standard-issue World War II novel, although, Moore's narrative angle on the war does remind me of Edmund de Waal's extraordinary 2010 memoir "The Hare with Amber Eyes." In both books the capricious nature of war to obliterate or overlook is explored through the fate of an aristocratic family's collection of fine art.

Our hero and narrator in this novel is Beatrice Palmer, the only child of Protestant shopkeepers in the west of Ireland. The word Beatrice repeatedly uses to describe herself is greedy, greedy not for money but for something to happen. When the story opens in 1938, Beatrice, out of boredom, has taught herself how to make lace while she stands behind the counter of her family's shop.

Beatrice explains that she's not allowed to read there, lest it appeared that I gave myself airs. Soon enough, Beatrice's yearning for adventure is answered. A European countess who's visiting the local landed gentry sweeps into the shop, surveys the lacework, and whisks Beatrice off to Berlin to make tablecloths and the like for a wealthy couple, Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg.

There's a Jane Eyre feel to Beatrice's arrival at the fabulous Metzenburg mansion, which is eerily near-empty of staff because of the coming war. Instead of making lace, Beatrice is put to work packing up the Metzenburg's array of priceless tchotchkes - turned ivory sculptures that are to be crated in barley, old master paintings rolled up pencil tight, and the Empress Josephine's yellow diamond sewn into a coat hem.

Most of this treasure will be buried on the grounds of the Metzenburg's country estate outside Berlin, where the family retreats for the duration. Felix Metzenburg, an otherwise good enough German, is on the outs politically with the Fuehrer. Besides, as Beatrice tells us, Felix would much rather pursue his quiet connoisseur's life, satisfying his compulsion to limit the world to the exquisite.

Fat chance. Not with those tanks ready to roll into Poland. The tension of this novel arises out of that disjunction between the static, gorgeously adorned life of the Metzenburgs and the depravity of war roiling just outside their gates. Moore is rightly celebrated for her lithe style as a writer, and in so many passages here she nimbly jumps back and forth over the boundaries of the Metzenburg estate to give readers a sense of the chaos that's inevitably seeping through their charmed defenses.

Here's Beatrice skittishly recalling the year 1943, a season of losses outside the great house, and in as well as cosmic instability. The butcher in the village disappeared that winter with his wife and twin sons. An object left momentarily on a table - an inkwell or a branch of witch-hazel carried from the woods - was gone when I returned for it, and an apple or a dish of almonds disappeared, even if I hadn't left the room.

One night I thought that I could hear thunder but I decided that it was only the hundreds of military transports on their way to the Eastern Front. When the earth began to shake, I knew that it wasn't the lorries, but the hum of hundreds of planes. By war's end, Beatrice and her employers will be excavating that treasure she buried to barter for coffee made of roasted acorns while marauding Russian troops violate their enchanted zone of neutrality.

Moore doesn't exactly tell a new war story here, but through Beatrice she speaks of all too familiar atrocities in such a spellbinding way that she compels readers to once again listen. If the Brothers Grimm had tackled the rise and fall of the Third Reich, they might well have produced a tale that reads like "The Life of Objects."

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Life of Objects" by Susanna Moore. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.