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  • The Ghost Keeper
  • By Natalie Morrill
  • Patrick Crean Editions, 368 pages

There’s a remarkable scene early in Canadian writer Natalie Morrill’s debut novel The Ghost Keeper that appears joyous on paper, but is devastating in the reading experience.

At a New Year’s Eve party, people gather in a bright and merry home away from the crowds. They play music, there are midnight kisses, a young man and woman meet and will fall in love.

The scene is written without a single ominous word, but the reader knows better. For this is New Year’s Eve, 1932, in Vienna. And the celebrants are Jewish. What will become of the older man playing the fiddle, the young man with the accordion, the middle-aged woman wearing glasses at the piano? And what about the young auburn-haired woman with the guitar who falls in love that night?

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The object of her affection is Josef Tabak, the book’s narrator. The son of a Jewish but completely secular accountant, Josef has come to believe in God and finds solace in visiting and caring for two Jewish cemeteries. He is not a popular boy, as he describes himself, “but not hated either – just unremarkable.”

He will soon come to know what it is to be hated.

Anti-Semitism in prewar Austria is presented as a creeping evil: ignored, accepted, embraced. On that New Year’s Eve, before the refuge of the warm party, Josef is out with his big sister and her friends, where he sees an ugly novelty item openly for sale at a market: resin pig figures, clearly marked as Jewish, fornicating.

Anyone who has seen The Sound of Music knows about the gleeful welcome the Nazis received when they marched into Austria after the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938.

But Josef is too busy living his life to take much notice of the events leading up to this. His is an everyman’s story.

“I am in love, absurdly in love, with my wife and with this little boy, and the rest of the country is like a paper model of the world. That there’s all this politicking right now is ridiculous.”

This is one of the book’s great successes. Holocaust victims – so familiar to us from grainy black-and-white photos of piles of bones or skeletal beings behind barbed wire – come alive in Morrill’s work in full, glorious colour. Before they were victims, they were regular people living happy little lives full of domestic and career ups and downs. Holocaust victims: They’re just like us.

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This message resonates today, with so much bloodshed around the world.

Natalie Morrill.

Esther Barrett

Without descending into the didactic, her novel helps the reader understand why European Jews stayed put, until they could no longer leave. This was home and they were occupied with life – and they rationalized. “England and France would never let Hitler get away with taking Austria,” Josef tells his brother-in-law. No Germans want war; not even the Nazis, he says. “They can’t afford it.”

Every political development is matched by a domestic activity: Josef and Anna take the baby for a walk as Austria’s Chancellor meets with Hitler. Josef makes shadow animals on the wall while Anna bleaches diapers the day of another ominous political development involving the Chancellor.

“But for me – to my discredit – it’s another paper headline in a paper world, while in the world of flesh my son gurgles on the blanket spread out over the floor,” Josef recalls.

And then, the Anschluss.

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The troubles begin for the Jews immediately. Josef is fired; former office mates transform instantly into strangers who harbor disgust for him, or are too scared to offer a kind word. Company owner Friedrich, a close friend, joins the Nazi Party. What will he do to Josef – or for him?

In the title story of his 2012 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, U.S. author Nathan Englander writes about a Jewish couple that discusses whether their non-Jewish friends would hide them during a Holocaust-like event, the way Anne Frank and her family were hidden.

A similar question hangs over this book: What are people capable of? Evil, yes, and heroic acts. But also self-preservation and indifference.

There is another question posed by this book: What is a man capable of when given absolute control over a woman?

In The Ghost Keeper, a Jewish woman survives the war, hidden upstairs in an attic – but she is also terribly victimized. “I feel I ought not to speak a word in complaint,” she says years later, when asked about her wartime experience. “I was one of the lucky ones, in the end.”

As good books do, this one invaded my life. After finishing the novel, I was at a restaurant for dinner, and the server listed wine options – one of which was Austrian. I was taken aback by my reaction; it was exceedingly unpleasant. I harbour no ill feelings toward present-day Austria (or its Blaufrankisch). Even if I’m quite aware of what went on there during the Second World War era, I can’t imagine having had that sort of visceral response before reading this book.

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There is great power in good historical fiction; it doesn’t just broaden understanding of what went on, but it puts flesh on the facts, and stays with you after the book is back on the shelf and you’ve returned to your life – as we are blessed to be able to do.

Marsha Lederman is the Western arts correspondent for The Globe and Mail.

The Ghost Keeper won the 2015 HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. Morrill, who was born in North Vancouver, is a graduate of UBC’s creative writing MFA program, and now lives in Ottawa. Morrill, 31, is not Jewish or Austrian, but lived in Vienna for a time as a child.

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