The Light After the War
The Light After the War is the author’s first novel under the name Anita Abriel although she has been published previously as Anita Hughes. Based on her mother’s life, the book is the story of two young Jewish-Hungarian women who miraculously survived the purges of WWII and in the aftermath struggle to build lives for themselves while recovering from their traumatizing past.
They were born just three days apart. Vera Frankel and Edith Ban grew up together in Budapest, more sisters than friends. They lived privileged lives, splitting their time between spacious apartments and homes in the country until the Nazis rose to power. As anti-semitism spread through Hungary, Vera and Edith found their existence greatly changed. First the loss of food and luxuries, then the move to the ghetto and finally, the trip on the train to Auschwitz. Clever thinking on the part of their mothers ensures the girls escape the train and luck lands them on an Austrian farm, working as laborers for the last year of the conflict.
They leave the farm and arrive in Naples, Italy, in 1947, looking for work. Thanks to a letter of recommendation from the American officer who had assisted them when Hungary was liberated, Vera is hired as a secretary at the U.S. Embassy, working for Captain Anton Wight. Fluent in five languages, able to take dictation and type, Vera easily excels at the position and while Anton initially had concerns about her youth (she’s only nineteen), he quickly comes to appreciate not just her work ethic but her beauty and intelligence. Anton and Vera had been raised in very similar circumstances, find they have a lot in common and quickly fall in love.
Edith also seems to be building a new life for herself. She meets a young photographer, Marcos, in the plaza, and the two become friends. Marcos gets a picture published in Life Magazine, and does work for other famous publications while Edith begins to sell dresses of her own design to a local boutique. It looks like the horrors of the war years are finally behind the two women, and there are nothing but blue skies ahead.
Of course, that’s not the way life works. Anton proposes to Vera but develops cold feet for various reasons, leaving only a note behind when he departs Naples, and Edith finds out Marcus is gay; the two remain close friends but agree marrying would put a strain on their relationship. After their failed affairs, Vera and Edith decide to leave Italy and begin anew again. Once more fate intervenes happily for them, and a rich and powerful sponsor agrees to bring them to America but they are turned away at Ellis Island after he dies unexpectedly. Needing a new destination they head to Caracas, Venezuela, hoping to find love and a home in a new land.
They say truth is stranger than fiction, but this fictionalized account of the truth is probably stranger than both. That is, I think, caused by the details missing from the text. For example, Hungary passed its ‘First Jewish Law’ when Vera was about nine, and the deprivation and persecution increased from that point, but when she applies for a job in 1947 she knows how to take dictation. It would have been interesting to know how she learned that, given the circumstances under which she was living. Captain Bingham, the American officer in Hungary, seems devoted to helping her, even though we are shown them having only a very casual acquaintanceship. Yet he writes her a letter of recommendation and he even takes a long trip to South America to bring her important information at a later point in the book. The backstory on what caused their connection to be so strong was sorely needed.
Vera’s association with Ricardo in Venezuela is similarly confusing. He extends her a great deal of help after a single meeting, the kind typically reserved for far closer liaisons, and I was confused as to what drew him to such actions. Being attracted to a pretty woman typically involves flirtation and possibly flowers, not moving your advertising business to a new company with the caveat that they hire a girl you just met as a copywriter. Anton seems to leave his position in Naples quite suddenly, certainly with enough speed that Vera and his confused housekeeper are left to pick up the pieces but typically the Army takes time to process even compassionate leave, much less the moving of a senior officer from an established embassy. Almost every relationship/event depicted in the book suffers from a similar dearth of specifics, causing the behavior of the characters to seem almost inexplicable.
It’s not just the relationships that lack context; we also receive little historical information. Other than the presence of American servicemen everywhere, the world does not seem much affected by the war – or at least we weren’t made privy to the effects.
The information deficit means that Vera and Edith are acting in a vacuum. This makes much of their behavior seem baffling and because most of the pivotal events in their lives simply occurred, rather than being built up to or worked for, the plot for the story seems guided by happenstance. The author mentions Jung’s theory of synchronicity “which is a series of meaningful coincidences that change your life forever” which might or might not occur in real life but definitely doesn’t work when it comes to fiction. Certainly in the instance of this novel, it made much of what drove our characters’ actions seem like deus ex machina rather than consistent, well-plotted storytelling.
One thing the author does want us to understand very clearly was that our two heroines are virtuous. Throughout the plot, it is emphasized that the men who give them jewels, jobs and money never receive anything but smiles and friendship in exchange. They are, in nearly all ways, perfect. Vera is a veritable saint, never angered by Ricardo’s jealousy or Anton’s desertion and ceaselessly self-sacrificing when it comes to those she loves. Edith, in many ways, is the same, reacting with equanimity to all the numerous men who betray her over the years, even when one of those betrayals nearly bankrupts her.
Ms. Abriel’s mother was probably a fascinating woman who lived an amazing life. That much comes across clearly in the narrative. But The Light After the War, with its confusing plot turns, weak historical content and one dimensional characters doesn’t do her story justice. The author gets points for her interesting premise and her desire to depict the struggles survivors faced after the war but sadly, her work fails to live up to the potential offered by those elements.