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In My Enemy’s House

by Carol Matas

Within a historical novel, the Holocaust exerts the gravitational force of a black hole. As a reader, you’re instantly caught in its grip, all your emotions – incredulity, rage, despair, and hope – intensely evoked. But the Holocaust is such a powerful event that it also has the potential to devour the novel itself, dwarfing and even obliterating the characters, so they are little more than allegorical figures.

Jewish persecution is territory that Carol Matas has mapped extensively in her many excellent novels: from Czar Nicholas’s 1827 decree forcing Jewish men and boys to serve in the army and convert to Christianity (Sworn Enemies) to, most horrifically, the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War (Daniel’s Story). Matas’s strength has been her ability to balance her colossal subject matter with the equally powerful individual stories of her young heroes – although in her latest novel she is somewhat less successful.

In My Enemy’s House begins in Zloczow, Poland, where the invading Germans are in the process of purging resident Jews. In the first harrowing 30 pages, teenage Marisa loses her mother, father, and most of her siblings in Nazi round-ups and executions. But Marisa is lucky: her fair hair and blue eyes make it possible for her to masquerade as a Gentile. With the help of a sympathetic neighbour, she obtains the papers of a Polish girl, and is transported to Germany. Here, she is put to work as a servant in the household of Herr Reymann, a high-ranking Nazi official.

It’s a terrific premise, and if I were a film or television producer, I would snap this book up in a second. Interestingly and, I think, to her credit, Matas seems less interested in the situation’s obvious external tensions (the very real fear of discovery as a Jew) than its intense psychological and spiritual burden on Marisa. On her first night, after dinner, Marisa must watch in horror as the Reymanns’ three children gleefully play a board game called Jews Out; afterward, the boys proudly tell her of their Uncle Wolfgang, and show her pictures of his work: “I really didn’t want to look but I couldn’t refuse. Still, I never expected what I saw. At first, I couldn’t even understand what I was looking at. German soldiers, their guns aimed at naked men, women, and children, standing over a large pit; a naked woman holding a small child against her chest, a soldier aiming at her; a long shot of a deep pit full of dead bodies – I stopped looking. Mute, I handed them back to Hans. He didn’t even seem to notice my distress.”

Almost most tortuous of all for Marisa, though, is the seeming normalcy and decency of the Reymanns. Herr Reymann treats her with courtesy; his wife kindly tends to her when she falls ill. The affectionate Charlotte, only a few years younger than Marisa, makes her a confidante. In an inspired scene, Marisa even does Charlotte’s homework as a favour: the assignment, which Marisa completes with perverse aplomb, is “How can we recognize a person’s race?” Nonetheless, and with considerable horror, Marisa realizes she feels some affection for this family.

The narrative progress of Matas’s novel is unconventional (and also somewhat daring) in that all the really traumatic things happen right up front, and after that, Marisa’s external circumstances actually seem to improve page by page. But as physical threat wanes, her existential struggle waxes. The wartime atrocities Marisa has witnessed naturally give rise to weighty theological questions. If everything is God’s will, are the Jews being punished? Can God possibly be benevolent? And most paralyzing of all, is there even a God? Matas also uses Marisa’s experience with the Reymanns to pose complex questions about the co-existence of good and evil, and the possibility (and even moral desirability) of embracing the humanity of even your worst enemy.

But here, in such a relatively short novel, I think Matas lets her story become too visibly schematic and symbolic, and forces revelations that her characters might not be ready to make. There is too much narration and too little incident to reasonably blaze the path of Marisa’s emotional trajectory. At the novel’s close, Marisa finally comes to accept her affection for the Reymanns, but we know the family too little for this to be entirely convincing. I wanted to spend more time with Marisa and Charlotte, and see their growing relationship. Most problematic of all, though, is that we know Marisa too little.

Matas is a writer who shows us her characters in extremis. From the novel’s first words, “Jews out!” the story hurtles forward, without any time to first get acquainted with Marisa and her family, her connections with her friends – to know what it is she is about to so horrifically lose. In beginning the novel at this point, Matas instantly casts Marisa in the role of survivor, and little else of her character has opportunity to emerge. Understandably, when the antagonists are the Nazis, when the risk of brutal death hangs over every page, smaller details and concerns tend to get obliterated in the Sturm und Drang. But we never see enough that is distinctive about Marisa. Partially this is due to Matas’s use of first-person narration, and her conceit that the story is Marisa’s own memoir. As such, there is a huge amount of narration: minor characters are often sketchy, as are some segments of the narrative that seem to blur past without any time to assimilate them. Sometimes the expository writing works well, as when describing an event so horrific, clinical objectivity is the only recourse; other times, the reader might wish for a bit more sensuous intimacy with Marisa and her situation. Brilliantly conceived, In My Enemy’s House pulls you in with a black hole’s gravity, but its pace is so accelerated that the characters, events, and narrator sometimes blur out of focus.


Reviewer: Kenneth Oppel

Publisher: Scholastic Canada


Price: $18.99

Page Count: 168 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-590-51570-5

Released: Aug.

Issue Date: 1999-9


Age Range: ages 12–16

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