The Devil’s Madonna by Sharon Potts
The Devil’s Madonna by Sharon Potts (Oceanview Publishing, 2012) takes us down a moderately familiar road. It’s a curious coincidence that immediately after reading a novel about an eighty-seven-year old Jewish man who discovers that a Nazi who almost killed him in a POW camp may still be alive, I should pick up a novel about a ninety-three-year old woman with Nazi problems from her past. She calls herself Lillian. In Berlin before the war broke out, she was an actress using the name Leli Lenz. When her stage show closed, she met Dr Altwulf, a much older man who taught art at the University and painted for his own enjoyment. Thanks to him, she appeared in three films made as part of the Goebbels’ propaganda campaign. In England before the war broke out, she met the American who was to marry her. At this time she was calling herself Astrid Troppe, born in Austria. Later she became Lillian Breitling, born in London with a British passport. It seems her real name was Ilsa Straus with her parents university teachers in Vienna. Her daughter, Dorothy (named after the Wizard of Oz), died in a car accident leaving a grandchild, Kali (named after the Goddess of Time and Change) who’s married to Seth Miller and carrying his child.
From this outline, you’ll understand the book is interested in the question of identity. Anyone who lives into their nineties is likely to get forgetful, even at the best of times. When she almost starts a serious fire, it’s obvious she can no longer live on her own. Later she has a stroke which compounds the problem. Since she won’t have anyone else in the house with her, the only way to deal with this is for Kali to move back into the house she lived in after the death of her mother. Kali quickly discovers that her grandmother has become more than a little paranoid. Yet they seem to fall back into a familiar pattern. Unfortunately, Seth is particularly resentful his wife should be showing him disloyalty. He had expected her to stay with him throughout the pregnancy. Kali is disconcerted by this apparent change in her husband. She had done everything possible to fit into his family, even converting to Judaism to ensure their child would stay within the faith.
Thematically, I was reminded of Hitler’s Daughter by Jackie French in which four Australian children discuss what it would be like to have Hitler as their father. Obviously, from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy, it’s difficult to establish a clear picture of the man and so he begins to ask his parents for information. In this book, we have a old woman who may be sliding into dementia and is, at times, very confused. Some of the things she says makes her granddaughter more curious about her family’s history. In part, this is a desire to be able to pass something of her heritage on to her own child. She thinks it important a child should have a sense of his or her roots. This has assumed greater importance in her mind because of her recently redefinition as Jewish for the marriage. She seeks a context for this change in her own identity, hoping to be able to pass on an oral tradition of who she was and how her Christian family came to join with a Jewish family.
While it would not be true to say her grandmother had been actively secretive when she was young, Kali has no facts about her grandmother’s life before she married. So, with the help of the boy next door who has now grown into a professor of history, she begins to disentangle the facts from the strange assortment of information her grandmother offers. The narrative develops along two tracks, one as historical fiction showing what actually happened to Lillian as a young woman, the other detailing the slow emergence of a threat to both grandmother and granddaughter. Although it becomes fairly obvious what must have happened about halfway through, the book does say interesting things about the nature of identity, wondering whether we can ever really be honest about who we are and what we believe. So often society condemns us if the majority recognise a difference. Over the generations, so many many groups have been on the receiving end of discrimination and persecution. For all our modern lip service to equality and the rights of the individual to a peaceful existence, innocent individuals can suddenly find themselves ostracised or worse. On this front, The Devil’s Madonna is successful. But, to my mind, it stops at entirely the wrong point.
I don’t mind books stopping abruptly, but I do object to books stopping arbitrarily. Obviously, I can’t discuss the detail of this without engaging in spoilers. All I will say is that the author had arrived at a situation forcing the whole issue into the public domain. An investigation was inevitable. A criminal trial might even have been appropriate. Whether or not the decision was taken to prosecute, an exploration of the legal and moral implications would illuminate not only the author’s views, but also allow readers to rehearse the arguments about what the long-term outcome should be. To stop at this point strikes me as moral cowardice. Having created the opportunity for a real discussion on the merits, the author should not throw up her hands and walk away in silence.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.