Paper Children, An Immigrant’s Legacy is loosely based on the life of the author’s Polish grandmother. The novel follows three generations of women and covers a time-span from pre-Hitler Europe to the hippie-era United States.
The story is split into their three diaries, starting with Paulina, a privileged Polish girl whose life begins in idyllic surroundings at the centre of Warsaw’s high society. Her servants and doting parents look after her every need and her life is filled with shopping, friends and concerts.
When she is forced to immigrate to New York, she’s suddenly faced with the harsh reality of not even being able to boil a pot of water, yet being left in charge of a house and children in a foreign country by her work-obsessed, dominating husband.
This book has the potential to be compelling and profound. It attempts to deal with the pain of conflicting loyalties, cultural displacement and the loss of family members to the Holocaust.
Despite the first-person narrative, however, the tone is strangely detached, humourless and devoid of feeling. Endless descriptions seem to take the place of dialogue or action and most of the book reads like a catalogue. When Paulina’s husband is shot by a mugger, we are told how “my hand clutched my mouth smearing red lipstick on my new gloves.”
By the time we get to Hitler’s rise to power, one worries that the description of him will focus on his outfit and moustache.
The trouble about the first-person narrative in this book is that it doesn’t come across as authentic. From the very beginning, when we get a glimpse into little Paulina’s inner thoughts, the tone clangs. She doesn’t seem to think like a little girl would.
The subsequent sections don’t improve much on this and one is constantly left feeling as though we’re backstage of a shadow puppet play, watching the author pull the wires. This sensation persists throughout and makes the book’s title Paper Children rather appropriate for the wrong reasons.
Despite the clumsy writing the characters do endear themselves to you: particularly when we get to follow Paulina’s rebellious daughter. She breathes some life into the story and her harrowing journey to photograph Holocaust survivors brings everything into sharp focus.
The book seems well-researched and could serve as a gentle introduction to Jewish history. It might suit younger readers, for whom it could spark an interest in history in general and who may subsequently discover some of the other much tougher works on the topic.
I wouldn’t therefore completely dismiss this book. It may not be the best example of well-crafted literature but it does have a certain homely, accessible charm and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.