Sunday, May 25, 2008

Two Lives by Vikram Seth

I've been so remiss in adding blurbs about the books I've been reading that I've started to purposefully avoid posting. Yes, that's dumb, and it must stop!

I have a long list of things I've read recently, but I'll start with the latest. "Two Lives" is a big book that wouldn't necessarily grab me. But I'm staying in a house where it was the only title that caught my interest, so I picked it up and took it for a test drive.
It's the story of an unusual marriage of two unusual people. Shanti is an India-born, German-educated dentist. Henny is his German-born Jewish wife. They meet when Shanti goes to Germany in the 1930s to obtain his training as a dentist. It's not abundantly clear why he chose Germany as his training ground, since he didn't speak German, nor know anyone in the country. But choose it he did.

He wound up living with Henny's family after her family had some financial reverses. They become friends, but nothing more and Shanti leaves Germany for London well before the 3rd Reich comes to power. But he and Henny and their circle of friends stay close.

Eventually, Henny is able to emigrate to England, but her sister and mother can't get a visa. 

The story is told from the present day, with Shanti's nephew Vickram slowly learning the full story of his uncle and aunt, who house him when he comes to London to study economics. By the time he figures out all of the permutations of their lives and their love both Shanti and Henny are dead. But as is so often the case, it's not until those close to us die that our interest in their early lives gets piqued.

Seth does a great job of making all of the impossible choices faced by German Jews during WWII seem as complex and murky as I can only imagine they were really. Henny was one of those remarkable people who can survive great loss and seem unfazed by it. I'm sure that wasn't the case, but the fact that she could even seem that way was fairly remarkable. And Shanti, who made his way alone to two alien countries, served with the British during the war and lost an arm during fighting in Italy is equally remarkable.

Essentially, "Two Lives" is just that--the story of a single couple. But their circumstances and their brave and sometimes short-sighted choices gives an insight into their time that's moving and enlightening.