“They lie in the bunk back to front, Max with Jacob behind him, listening to the noises of the sleeping and the sick. It’s hard to fall asleep with the racket and the stench raised by so many collapsing lives—the gasping and the coughing, the scrambling of some individual to the edge of the bunk where he can spill the little contents of his digestive tract onto the floor from one uncontrollable orifice or another—but the alternative is worse, for silence is death.”
The Rosens are not without options or opportunities, however, to help alleviate—in whatever limited way--their own suppression and to keep them from the periodic round-ups for the gas chamber. In part to get Max needed medical attention for an injury, Jacob is able, from a post as the camp’s new barber for the SS elite, to parlay Eidel’s artistic talent for her stint as portrait painter for the deputy commandant’s family. Even Lydia is part and parcel of such reciprocating machinations, though her posthumous role is represented by her mother’s striking painting of her, undertaken in better days but seized from the family upon internment.
Indeed, the painting itself, for a time hanging in the deputy commandment’s home—while he hasn’t the least suspicion that its subject is a Jew--is a key element in setting in motion a series of dramatic events so far-reaching that the saga must be extended via the book's interspersed chapters devoted to a modern-day Max, a much older and worldly-wiser survivor and celebrated painter, preparing to be honored with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington. For the time being, however, he’s “just a broken boy with a badly-healed leg and an empty belly and a stolen past, making his way toward a future that he couldn’t imagine.”
Clinch’s masterful and rich craftsmanship not only assures a cohesive narrative that convincingly sustains such a sweeping storyline. It also allows him to ambitiously expand his thematic horizons in allowing for the promulgation that art does not exist in a vacuum; there is no such thing as art for art’s sake in the midst of crimes against humanity that sees, at best, that “For every beautiful work of art, an equal and opposite atrocity.”