Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2020
This is Suzanne Leal’s third novel. Like her earlier work, Border Street, it is inspired by her long and dear friendship with Fred and Eva Perger, both Czech Jews, both Holocaust survivors.
While Border Street takes its cues from Fred’s story, The Deceptions draws on Eva’s experiences from 1943 Prague in the Theresienstadt Ghetto to the April 1945 British liberation of Bergen-Belsen, via Auschwitz, Kurzbach and Gross-Rosen, as the Nazi forces retreated and transported train loads of Jews in horrific conditions to hellish camps. And this story is indeed horrific because it is true, inexplicably true in our memory and the stories we have from our parents and grandparents.
We see this era through the eyes of Suzanne Leal’s leading character Hana, and like much contemporary historical fiction, we also see it through the prism of a 2010 Australian story in the diverse characters of Tessa and Ruth. These women and their stories are connected variously by family and the burden of held secrets.
The repeated theme of truth and lies is what glues these strands together. At Theresienstadt, Hana has placed her trust in gendarme Karel Kruta, hoping to escape transportation. Karel, however, is playing his own domestic deception game and it is this that leads to both Hana and Karel’s downfall.
Jumping forward to contemporary Australia, we again meet Karel who has survived the war with his wife Irina and daughter Petra, now a grown woman with her own daughter, thirty-something Tessa. Tessa is embroiled in a passionate and irresistible affair with her boss when we first meet her, and then in a developing and nourishing relationship with Jon, who we later learn to be Hana’s grandson.
And so it is that Suzanne Leal deftly ensnares us in the lives of these two families across three generations and at the same time that of the Reverend Ruth Martin and her father, also Reverend but now in his declining years, suffering from Parkinsons and dementia, and living in a home under the care of the gentle Iranian Amir, who also carries a secret. Ruth has her own demons, not the least of which is how to be with her father when she can no longer share her secrets and fears with him, when he is essentially gone.
There is an unravelling of sorts of these disparate yet connected threads, but we are satisfyingly left with the conclusion that truth is not always black and white. It is the sensitivity of the writer’s gaze, her charity towards her characters that leads us to find this in ourselves. Thus it is that while we have reeled from the sheer horror of Nazism in Europe in the WW 11 era, we can slip into a present where people are flawed, erring, insufficient, but without the same degree of wickedness and without the thirst for vengeance.
Undoubtedly, Hana and Tessa are our lead actresses here, but their supporting cast, both male and female is no less compelling – Eliška, Ruth, Irina, Karel, Robert, William, Amir, Evan, Jon. To some extent these people are plot knots but we learn to know them, their goodness, their foibles, their ridiculousness, their dignity – their human-ness.
There are many books that explore this history and many ways of seeing. The Deceptions takes the big text-book history and tunnels underneath it to discover what these events meant for the people who lived them and for us who have come after. The writer’s craft is such that we read this book like the wind, but its words stay buried in us and continue to encourage questions. I for one am grateful to Fred and Eva Perger for sharing their lives with Suzanne Leal, so that she could in turn hold their story to the light.