Eva Traube Abrams, a semi-retired librarian in Florida, is shelving books one morning when her eyes lock on a photograph in a magazine lying open nearby. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.
The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer—but will she have the strength to revisit old memories and help reunite those lost during the war?
As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.
An engaging and evocative novel reminiscent of The Lost Girls of Paris and The Alice Network, The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of bravery and love in the face of evil.
Kristin Harmel’s “The Book of Lost Names” is once again a reminder of the resiliency of those who have endured the atrocities of WW2. By now, we may have read tons of books written about this dark period in history but just as we thought everything else has been written, we’d be surprised that there are unwritten and untold stories yet to be discovered.
“The Book of Lost Names” is at once a profound narrative told from Eva Traube’s perspective alternating between 1942-1945 and 2005. Eva was compelled to abandon Paris in 1942, after her father, a Polish Jew, was seized by the Germans. Eva and her mother arrive in Aurignon under false identities. With the help of Père Clément who has been forging identity documents for Jews escaping captivity, Eva learns to forge for Jewish children attempting to flee into Switzerland to take safety in a small mountain town in the Free Zone. But Eva and her mother’s relationship turned sour; the latter still grief-stricken from her husband’s arrest bores a hole in Eva’s heart for having chosen to help strangers than be with her. She was reminded by her mother of the bitterness of having to live life under false pretenses. With the help of the handsome forger Rémy, they’ve decided to record the real names of the children using codes formulated from the Fibonacci sequence and hid the secret language in the Book of Lost Names. But Eva has to decide between her mother and the lives needed to be saved. The ultimate cost of her choices will decide her fate in this heartbreaking yet inspiring narrative on love, heroism, and sacrifice.
The novel, despite its seemingly brief ending that in my opinion, should have been more intensely engaging, is still a precious read. I admire Harmel’s dynamism and capability in researching story ideas focusing on WW2. It still astounds me beyond anything what other ingenious ways of pulling through have all those war heroes and survivors came up with. Books similar to “The Book of Lost Names” have shown generations how ordinary people have become extraordinary in the face of death. Harmel also gave us a contrast between people whose choices were selfless and those who have chosen themselves to the point of betraying even those they love. The nuances in our priorities and goals determine our fate and those of others. Can we truly say that cowardice is an immediate safety net whilst bravery a death sentence? I believe Harmel’s purpose in writing this book is not only to enlighten us with the mistakes of the past but to really examine why some people are brave whilst others cower in the face of danger. We cannot truly gauge a person based on his desire to save himself before others. The immediate response is to detest such selfishness but who are we truly to judge?
Historical fiction will always have a place on my shelf and in my heart and “The Book of Lost Names” now sits alongside the likes of “The Book Thief”, “All The Light We Cannot See”, and “The Nightingale” to name a few. It is imperative that we read these books because there is so much about history that we need to know about and learn and absorb. Harmel’s hauntingly beautiful novel is one that lingers on–a memory where we can draw strength from whenever we need to make choices that require sacrifice.
Author: Kristin Harmel
Genre: Historical Fiction / World War II Fiction
Length: 400 pages
Publisher: Published July 21st 2020 by Gallery Books