…if I had not cherished my girlish dreams, of love and romance, if I had not read and, what is worse, believed all those novels, if I had stayed in Ballycarra…
Susanna Moore’s The Lives of Objects brought me back to the terror, the destruction, and misery of World War II. It begins in 1938 with seventeen year old Beatrice living with her mother and father, local shopkeepers, who show little regard for her or for the novels she reads. She wishes only to leave Ballycara, a small village in west Ireland.
To relieve her boredom, she teaches herself how to make lace and earn a little money. Out of nowhere, a European countess sweeps into her shop one day, is taken by her fine lacework, and invites her to Germany to work for her friends, a wealthy couple, Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg.
But this is no fairy tale. Germany invades westward toward Belgium, Holland and France, then eastward to Poland and Russia. War overtakes the Metzenbergs (Felix is no longer “in” with Hitler) and they leave Berlin for their vast country estate.
There Beatrice must put aside her lacework and begin burying the Metzenburg’s treasure in the surrounding gardens—porcelains, ivories, ornate furniture, paintings, silver and gold, jewels, small and large sculptures, canned goods, etc. Later, one by one these objects are used to barter for food or stolen by thieves and then, toward the end of the war, by invading Russian troops.
The palace is bombed, ruins are everywhere, there is talk of concentration camps, the Metzenburgs, their servants and Beatrice take shelter in one of the smaller homes on their estate. Villagers begin to disappear, so do friends, on a visit to Berlin to sell some paintings, Dorothea finds her home destroyed, her attorney cheats her out of a sizable amount of money, the dealer she had hoped to sell some artwork cannot be found.
The marauding Russians take over her country estate, Felix is arrested and taken to one of the camps, there is filth, disarray, and destruction everywhere, illness and starvation must be endured, Beatrice is brutalized, there is no heat and it is the coldest winter ever recorded.
Enough. You get the picture. While The Life of Objects is said to be a novel, it reads more like a memoir, a historical account of what life was like in Nazi Germany. And while I’ve read many such accounts, Moore’s treatment seems like no other.
Eventually the Germans surrender, but the Russians remain at the estate, the servants either die or leave and Dorothea and Beatrice set out for Berlin where they settle in the American sector. They had survived, but they were not the same.
…we had been left with the inexhaustible presence of evil. That people including myself, could so easily resume their old ways and habits seemed a repudiation of all that had been lost.