The Book of Aron
by Jim Shepard
Knopf 272 pages
Release Date May 12th, 2015
Reviewed by Vickie Fang
The Book of Aron is both a very easy novel to and a very difficult one; I read it with the growing conviction that it was not quite “best” enough to be reviewed in Best New Fiction and ended it in a state of something like shock as its power took hold of me. Let me try to explain. The novel tells the story of a young Jewish boy named Aron who lives in Warsaw during the early 1940s. Written from Aron’s point of view, it is, as one reviewer has described it, “shockingly unsentimental,” which is unsurprising given how few boys on the cusp of adolescence are given to fine feelings or nostalgia. It is also almost entirely without reflection or self-awareness, again, entirely appropriate for the narrator as well as for an author who likes action and has denounced “the tyranny of the epiphany.” It is the absence of these two qualities — sentiment and insight – that make for a read that is both easy and difficult.
It’s easy because Shepard’s masterful prose is always lucid and vivid, pulling the reader from one scene to another, most of the scenes startling, all of them believable. There is no tedium, no bathos, no memories or flights of fancy to slow down an engrossing story. It’s the kind of book you can read late at night, turning page after page with rapt concentration until you hear the birds begin to sing and realize you’ve got one tough day at work ahead of you.
It’s difficult because when you’re reading about a child suffering through a series of increasingly horrific losses, you kind of like to see all that misery balanced out with something else. You start to think that fine feelings might not be such a bad idea. The finer the better, in fact. In the midst of so much tragedy, what would be so wrong with a scene of intense beauty or a poignant memory of earlier days? Nothing, maybe, but you’re not going to find anything like that in this book. There is humor, the quick witted, unrelenting mockery of children fighting to survive. I laughed out loud at some of it, but I don’t think the characters ever laugh at all. We don’t even have the relief of a villain to hate. The Germans are for the most part distant, anonymous characters, forces of nature more than human beings. The people we can see doing harm are the Jews themselves, and it’s hard to hate even the most destructive of them; in fact, it’s hard to know whether they are destructive or whether they’re managing to mitigate in some small way the horrors that surround them.
And if it’s hard for us to know, it’s impossible for young Aron. Watching him struggle to do the right thing when there is no right thing may be the most painful aspect of the entire book. Aron, who seems to have been depressed even before the war, labors heroically to steal, to smuggle, to stay alive, to sacrifice others so that the people he loves can survive. He has no philosophy to fall back on when he falls. He can’t explain his life, or even his own feelings. He suffers with little understanding, and we witness the depth of his pain only through the briefest of descriptions. This is Aron watching the murder of a friend: The friend asks, “’Are you really going to kill me over some turnips?’ and the German who’d pushed him shot him. His head hit the wall so hard that his rabbit-skin hat landed on the dirt in front of him. Because of his wooden shoes each foot skidded out from under him in a different direction. The other German was so upset by the noise I made that he knocked me to the ground.”
There is even less direct explanation when Aron must make the most painful of decisions. He never explains them directly, not even to himself, but the night before he must decide whether to turn informant he surprises his mother by climbing into bed with her. He is almost a teenager, but he describes the scene like this: “She smelled like cabbage and the coal from the stove. ‘Did you have a bad dream?’ she asked in her sleepy voice. Her finger tickled my ear. ‘Don’t cry,’ I told her, and she tucked my head under her chin. She called me her beautiful boy when I put my arms around her neck. When I woke in the morning I’d wet the bed.”
It was at this point that I started to rebel. The humor and the liveliness didn’t seem like enough when the entire arc of the book was the slow destruction of a helpless and uncomprehending child. I kept reading – Shepard had drawn me in – but I thought that book was lacking something. It need beauty, contrast, purpose, something to give meaning to the tragic unrolling of events. And then, on the last page of the book, I changed my mind completely. I won’t give the story away by explaining exactly how I finally saw it, but the meaning that escaped Aron the child (and, for a long time, escaped this particular reader as well) suddenly became undeniable. I closed this book with the kind of calm that comes after a great release of tension. The Book of Aron is as fine a plea for forgiveness as I’ve ever read.
Animated opening to The Book of Aron: