Vladimir Nabokov advised fiction writers to put their characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them. In the edgy and suspenseful My Long List of Impossible Things, novelist Michelle Barker’s tree is tall and unstable, her rocks heavy, sharp, and numerous.
Sixteen-year-old Katja lives with her mother and sister in Soviet-occupied East Germany just after the war. In the book’s opening pages, the family is brutally expelled from their home by Russian soldiers. They take to the road with what they can carry on their way to family friends in a neighbouring town. Scant days later, soldiers shoot the mother as she stands beside the girls in a muddy field. The story becomes one of desperate survival.
The girls make it to their destination, only to discover faint and grudging hospitality. Their stay is obviously provisional, dependent on their ability to contribute work and food to the household. Barker paints a stark portrait of life on the edge in an oppressive regime, a world of deal-making, bribery, barter, and mistrust, where a pat of butter, the “gift” of your hat, or a moment of well-choreographed flirtation is all that stands between you and death.
The high-stakes plot is deftly constructed with conceals, reveals, and unflagging tension. Historical detail is smoothly cooked into the action. And through it all, Katja is a completely believable teen: impulsive, foolish in her choice of friends, prone to crushes, resentful of her sister, passionate about music.
What is most remarkable, however, is the subtle moral framework that Barker builds, especially as Katja becomes gradually aware of the Holocaust. Who is the other, the enemy? Do we owe more to family than to strangers? To what extent are we responsible for the actions of our leaders? Is survival worth betrayal? What about unintended consequences? (One impulsive act of minor vandalism on Katja’s part results in 10 strangers being sent to Siberia.) Barker creates a story with no consoling simple message. But one fact is clear: in times of war, the young are always victims.
My Long List of Impossible Things is a thought-provoking page-turner – the kind of book you want to discuss as soon as you put it down.