Paperback: The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert

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The Independent Culture

Rachel Seiffert's memorable first novel is full of startling images – the most nightmarish of which describes a young girl trying to cross a river with a small baby strapped to her stomach. Lore is just 12 when the war ends. Following the arrest of her Nazi parents, she's responsible for shepherding her four younger siblings across a devastated Germany and home to Hamburg. In a novel that considers the knotty problem of German war guilt, Seiffert explores the impact of the Holocaust on ordinary lives.

Told in the form of three novellas, the novel opens with the curious story of "Helmut". A vaguely autistic adolescent, Helmut comes of age in Thirties Berlin. A keen photographer and trainspotter, he starts to photograph events at his local train station – inadvertently recording what turns out to be the mass deportation of Gypsies and Jews from the city. "Lore", the central and strongest story in the book, sees the novel really taking shape. Seiffert's spare and poetic prose respectfully hints at, rather than appropriates, the young girl's confusion about her own, and her family's, place in the world. Finally we are transported to 1997 and Micha – a young teacher who becomes obsessed with determining how far his grandfather (of whom he was very fond) was responsible for a series of SS massacres in Belarus. Almost a great novel – the material is explosive, the story-telling compelling – it is ultimately undermined by Seiffert's tripartite narrative.