Eva and her teenage, older sister Margot, together with their professional- class Jewish parents, find themselves caught in the whirlwind that sweeps Europe. The terrible, inexorable progress takes place: petty persecutions leading to dispossession, the ghetto, the cattle trucks, the camps. Eva's parents are immediately directed into the stream of trudging prisoners that leads straight to the smoking chimneys; Margot is already lost, boarded with strangers in a pathetic attempt to hide and escape (she could pass as "one of them"). Eva herself begins the seemingly endless confused spiralling nightmare that leads through one camp and another, from forced labour and starvation to enforced idleness and starvation: she weighs 60lbs by the time the shouting, whistling Englishmen, bringing chocolate with disbelief in their eyes, jump out of trucks and tell the silent, twisted, lice-ridden skeletons that they are "free".
It is perhaps an appalling truth that such descriptions are now very familiar to us. The cattle trucks jolting and trundling east, stopping for hours with their human cargo doubled up with thirst and the stench of excrement? We've read of this, heard tell of this: it's a brave writer, you think, who tells it again. But Phillips does tell it all again, unflinchingly ("The process of gassing takes place in the following manner") but with no sense of competing in the horror-show.
Eva's story begins, in fact, at what might seem the end - the liberation of the last camp, when among the kind and horrified Tommies is Gerry, who offers her titbits and tries to make her smile (she will not: her teeth are broken and her breath foul from disease and starvation). And it is by no means the end for her yet. As the account loops back and forwards in time, through normality to craziness, past the destruction of her family and disappearance of her world, from reality to hallucination, we too are pummelled by the shocks and reversals, confused, dislocated and grief- stricken.
These days, practically all self-respecting novels have a parallel plot interlooping through the primary narrative, and Phillips has certainly taken some chances with his. A full quarter of the novel has passed when suddenly, without so much as a chapter break, he lands us (dazed and confused) in the Venice of 1480, where the ghetto was invented. The Jewish community lived under curfews of several kinds: forbidden to practise any trade but that of usury (and then despised for it); locked in at night to a gated area of tall, tightly squashed houses patrolled by armed Christian guards that the Jews themselves had to pay.
Something happens. Several witnesses are absolutely sure about this: a small blond beggar-boy has disappeared at the time of a Jewish festival, when - it was believed - the Jews slaughtered a Christian child and used his blood in the ritual preparation of the celebratory meal. Respected households are accused; the dreadful processes of medieval law invoked; confessions are extracted. You can guess the rest (the process of burning takes place in the following manner ...).
Then he does it again: suddenly, Phillips introduces us to a foreign soldier, a general, living idly in Venice at the whim of the Doge, waiting to fight the Turks. It does not take long for us to realise that he is an African, that his young bride is probably called Desdemona, and that we know how this story ends. The writing of the section is absorbingly fine-grained, vividly evoking the sodden, luscious richness of the city and the stranger's eyes upon it, as well as the layered-up clashing of cultures as the African visits both the grand house of his future wife's father and the dark streets of the ghetto.
Finally, Phillips gathers up all the dropped stitches of his knitting into a final episode that visits London and Israel, brings together black and Jew, the old world and the new, victims and survivors, tragedy and more tragedy. He has written an astonishing novel: ambitious, pithy, beautifully written and - above all - brave enough to tackle the great, public issues of our century without pity, prurience or maudlin sentiment.