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The Dark Room

By Rachel Seiffert

Knopf Canada, 336 pages, $32.95

At its bleakest, human history can be looked upon as a series of dark rooms and often darker passages. In Western literature, Second World War Germany is, without question, the darkest room of all. In the never-ending wake of such incidents of humanity gone horribly wrong, countless writers (two and even three generations of them now) have framed stories that grapple with "the big questions."

A cynic might ask whether we have room in ourselves for another story about the Holocaust. This cynic might reply: Do you have room in yourself for another story about love? Whatever the subject, there is no end to the ways of telling. Thirty-year-old Rachel Seiffert, a first novelist from England who lives in Germany, proves this to be true with her stunning debut novel, The Dark Room.

Seiffert writes with such extraordinary elegance that it takes your breath away. Her voice sings with aching precision yet possesses a glorious innocence that can trouble the simplest of words. The effortlessness of her language is remarkable given the complexity of perspectives she entertains. In this novel -- three novellas, in fact -- Seiffert courageously frames this definitive historical episode and its ongoing repercussions in terms of the lives of three ordinary Germans.

Helmut is born in Berlin in 1921. He suffers from a congenital deformity, which, while it evokes fierce devotion from his parents, only invites derision and mockery from his schoolmates. A gentle photographer takes him on as apprentice, and he comes to observe and love his Berlin through the lens of a camera. With his deformity and his lens, he stands outside, observing.

His exclusion cannot be made more evident than when, despite his allegiance to the Fuhrer and the Nazi Party, he is rejected by the army. He hangs his head in shame as "he imagines each man he sees is on his way to the front, while he is going home to his mother." He continues to take photographs, as Berlin falls around him, but somehow in his recording of the details, he fails to see that the forest around him is on fire.

Lore is a teenager when the war ends. Her parents have "gone away" and she is left to lead her younger siblings on a search for their grandmother. Like many Germans, she is oblivious to the atrocities that have been committed, unaware of the fact that her parents are now in Allied captivity, and that the country has been divided into zones of occupation through which she should technically not be allowed to pass. All she knows is that her grandmother lives in Hamburg and that is where she must go. She leads her siblings on a harrowing, heartbreaking journey through the four zones, confronted each step of the way with the increasing awareness that they have been living in a world of the most unimaginable horrors.

Part of the mastery of the novel lies in the evocation of the mood of a historical period without an explicit account of the facts that have come to define it. Lore learns certain truths through witnessing the aftermath and the confusion; a future generation of German schoolchildren will partake in an annual day of commemoration and remembrance and then get on with being German schoolchildren for the rest of the year.

In the third novella, Micha, a schoolteacher, reflects on the relationship between what he learned in school and his own family's silent history. This leads Micha to embark on a quest to discover why his grandfather was imprisoned by the Russians after the war, a line of inquiry that is met with resistance and reluctance every step of the way. It's a solitary journey which alienates him from his family and takes him into the lives of strangers whose own troubled histories, while providing answers, compound his confusion.

Each of these novellas is a poignant study of the ordinary moments in extraordinary circum- stances. In total, though, this book is neither apology nor eulogy. It explores the familiar terrain of guilt and shame, but does so without clichés or simplistic contradictions. The tension of being implicitly involved in a history one did not necessarily condone is stretched agonizingly taut through Seiffert's quiet exploration of the subtle complexities of competing perceptions within a self, within a family, within a nation.

Camilla Gibb's own first novel, Mouthing the Words , won the City of Toronto Book Prize. It has just been published in the United States and several other countries.

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