Book review: Sufferance ‘A book which haunts me’



By Charles Palliser

Guernica World Editions £12.95

Reviewed by Keren David

A few years ago a friend of mine offered to house two Ukrainian refugees in her house, a mother and daughter. Her intentions were entirely good. But alas, the mother was demanding and bossy, the daughter spoilt, and the whole experience became a nightmare for my friend. Of course she sympathised with their plight – but her home did not feel like her own any more.

I thought of her when I read Charles Pallister’s new book Sufferance. For my friend it was painful to discover that a good deed can go sour. But what if her annoying guests had been hiding in fear of their lives? And what if their presence had threatened her own family?

The 13-year-old girl at the centre of Sufferance – never named – “was not even in my daughter’s class”, the narrator tells the reader. He isn’t named either, nor are his family or the country they live in. The girl’s “own community” are never explicitly called Jews. And “the Enemy” is not labelled as Nazis. It is left to the reader to work these things out. That process adds extra layers of discomfort to this brilliantly clever novel, which haunts me days after finishing it.

In the hands of a less courageous writer, this could have been a trite crowd-pleaser of a Holocaust novel, in which the Jews are sympathetic, passive victims, the narrator’s family righteous heroes, and antisemitism is just for the Nazis. But Pallister has no interest in that kind of narrative. Instead he looks unflinchingly at the human condition and comes to the bleakest of conclusions. Good intentions here are undercut by self interest and prejudice, and every emotion involved in bringing a stranger into one’s home – a stranger whose presence comes to threaten the safety of the host family – is mercilessly interrogated.

The girl has been left alone with a servant as her country is occupied and divided, her parents and younger brother cut off in the capital, her older brother in the army. She is “charming” but the lens through which we see her takes in resentment and jealousy as well as pity – she is a “show off” from a “rich family”. What’s more “her own kind don’t seem to like her either”. For her part she is keen to distance herself from the members of her community who have not learnt the language of the country they live in. Nonetheless the narrator’s family offers her shelter. “I have to make it clear that we did not take an interest in her because we expected to be rewarded or anything like that,” says the narrator, while almost in the next breath noting that her parents were staying in a hotel “whose name I recognised as one of the grandest”. Before their first meeting is over he has discovered that her father owns a department store, and soon is speculating that he might be offered a job there. But there is a human connection too: “I felt for her as though she were my own child, and the idea came to me that was to have such far-reaching consequences.”

The idea – to offer the child shelter – causes trouble in the family right from the start, with petty squabbles over rooms and possessions, especially a doll which the child loves. But quite soon the narrator, a civil servant, sees that things are going to get worse. “I had begun to realise that certain colleagues in the city’s administration who belonged to the same minority as the girl had ceased to appear at work… Nobody ever mentioned them or asked where they had gone.” As horrors unfold, they are mostly off stage, able to be ignored by not asking questions. Until it is too late, and the girl becomes a problem which must be solved in a terrible way.

There is scant comfort on offer. This is an antidote to those books and films that use the Shoah to tell uplifting moral fables. Charles Pallister deserves a wide audience for it.

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