The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill
How many of us visit graveyards when we travel? I know that I do, and I suspect I am not alone. We read the names and inscriptions on the stones, tributes to people we never knew ourselves. But, we imagine what their lives might have been like, some buried in a country far from where they were born. Some so young. In Europe I have often wandered into cemeteries, some Jewish, many with old stones, almost museums.
You will think of this, and more, as you read The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill.
The book begins in a Jewish cemetery, in Vienna, and is told by Tobias Tobak, as he struggles about how to begin to tell us his story. If you have any doubts that this will become a truly great novel, set them aside and continue. It took me about 50 pages. By the time Tobias begins to tell us of falling in love with Anna in 1933 you will not want to put this book down for a moment.
The Ghost Keeper is about memory. It is about memory of a time, and those who were lost during that time. It is about the need to trust, and the heartache of betrayal. It is about the risks of entrusting the care of your child to others. It is a story of luck and misfortune.
I believe this is an important book – it is somehow more than simply a beautifully written, and plotted, novel. Every European Jew who did not perish in the Holocaust has a family story of survival or escape from Europe, stories of hardship and luck. When generation passes from life the personal connection will be gone. My children can say “my great-grandfather escaped from Russia” or Poland or Austria, but they do not remember the timid little man who was a frightened but resilient youth, lost in Antwerp, and arrested as a vagrant, before finally boarding a ship and entering Canada in Halifax. He came into this country with another mans name, and was afraid, until the day he died, of being found out and sent back to Poland.
Tobias, also a small and timid young man, will survive this war, but it is a long war, and a much longer time before he can understand all that happened, to himself, and to those he loves.
The Ghost Keeper is a novel that explores the concepts of good and evil, and how a good person can do evil deeds. How guilt can destroy. How fate and circumstance can change lives in a moment. How people can survive, and can live again with trust and delight after horror. It is about how situations so surreal can be set aside, and peace can be found, that there can be gratitude for life.
There is a perfectly worded, glittering description of Vienna’s Kristallnact, and so much more about the city that Tobias so loved. The Ghost Keeper is a novel that is best read without knowing any of the story to come, and it will stay with you for a very long time.