This brief novel was my book club’s choice for January, and though we all appreciated the emotional arc of the story, we felt like something must have been lost in translation. The blurbs on the back cover of the paperback copy I interlibrary-loaned are full of glowing descriptions like “unforgettable” and “it will haunt you forever” and “written with crystalline simplicity, intense passion and lively, stirring humanity.” I kept wondering, “Did they read the same book as me?”
The bones of the story are interesting—in the modern day, a touring musician plays a concert with the Krakow orchestra and hears a woman playing a violin with an amazing tone. When the musician asks the woman, Regina, about the violin, he learns that it was made by her uncle, Daniel, and it’s a priceless family heirloom with a heartbreaking story.
The novel then shifts to World War II and we are at Auschwitz with Regina’s Uncle Daniel, who before the war had been a violin maker, but now is simply fighting to survive. When he entered the camp, Daniel had told the guards his profession was “cabinet maker” and this skill gains him entry into the Commander’s house, initially to build a greenhouse but then, almost by chance, to repair a violin.
It is not a surprise that Daniel is eventually asked to make a violin for the Commander, but what is surprising is that this project becomes a cruel contest. The commander has made some sort of wager with the camp doctor (think the kind of doctor who does experiments on Jewish prisoners), but Daniel doesn’t know the specifics—only that it is his life on the line. I won’t give away what happens next, only to say that the novel jumps back to the present day and we find out Daniel’s fate in retrospect.
The details about violin making are fascinating and the descriptions of life in Auschwitz are, as you might imagine, horrifying. However, as a reader, I felt a bit confused and frustrated by what the narrator/writer chose to show and not show of Daniel’s story and the way the novel began with one frame/character but ended with another. The message of the story comes through loud and clear, like the notes of a violin, but I kept wishing there had been more meat on these bones.