I read all night again. It’s one of the summer luxuries I can’t live without, even though I started pulling literary all-nighters only a few years back when I picked up The Life of Pi late one evening and kept turning pages until the sun came up and I ran out of book.
Last night started like any other big read night. I ran a tub at about 11:45 (to wash off the coating of DEET necessary to survive a walk with the dog right now). My intention was to read in the fifteen minutes required between washing my face and applying the prescription goop for my rosacea. Really, it was! By the time I started my soak last night, I was exhausted and really wanted to sleep; reading when I should have been dreaming was not in the plan at all.
Beatrice Colin’s novel The Glimmer Palace sucked me in like the earring I had to fish out of the vacuum’s dust bin last week. I was simply helpless against that kind of pull. Never mind that the dust jacket is stunning, and that the title is what landed this book in my library basket. Every one of its 400 pages is covered in dark, decadent prose, describing events at times so terrible I couldn’t look away, and in other moments so beautiful I caught my mouth hanging open.
The Glimmer Palace begins with the birth of a child and strides purposefully through her life into middle age. Few books I’ve read manage to address the changes in a human being from childhood to maturity with the grace and attention to minutiae Colin accomplishes in this novel. I truly believed the main character, Lilly Nelly Aphrodite, born unwanted to careless cabaret performers and unloved through most of her life. There were moments when I thwacked my pillow (because I did not read all night in the tub, of course) out of frustration and stunned sorrow at the tragedies and disappointments Lilly suffers. In her eventual career as a silent film star, Lilly, known by the performing name Lida, glows so brightly in Colin’s descriptions that I believed she was an audience favourite on the screen, mesmerizing crowds of people with her remarkable eyes, capturing millions of hearts who never heard her voice.
Technically, I suppose The Glimmer Palace is historical fiction, although it reads like the informed biography of a real person and not someone who never drew breath or wore clothes or existed at all. The majority of the plotline happens in Berlin between the beginning of World War I and the events immediately before World War II, which was really interesting for me as a reader and as a person with some background in history. Social studies minor, that’s me!
Most of the war novels I’ve read, although honestly I avoid them if possible, deal with the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who were plunged directly into the violence and horrors of battle. Of those books, almost all of them are also written from the side of the forces who, although decimated by war and forever changed by their immersion in bloody violence, emerge from conflict victorious to rebuild successful lives. I love The Glimmer Palace largely because it’s written from a woman’s point of view, and poignantly tells the story of WWI through the eyes of someone who suffered but did not fight. This is the story of the people no one discusses, the impoverished civilians with nothing to eat and no where to turn, dying of malnutrition, infectious disease, and a total lack of hope. I was particularly struck by the way the people’s plight did not end after the armistice, as is the case in British and North American accounts of the World Wars. Few North Americans have even the vaguest idea of the impact of The Treaty of Versailles on the German people in particular, or understand the inability of the government to help its people under the conditions of armistice. This novel captured the bleak agony experienced by millions of Germans after the war.
There is one scene in the novel where a horse dies suddenly on its feet and collapses, panicking the young boy who is trying to haul a cart through the streets. Before the boy understands that his horse has died, starving people descend on the horse, stripping it of flesh and draining the blood; they are so desperate for nourishment that they rush in with blades and dishes to collect what is edible while the boy wails in the street. In moments like these, Colin captures the frenzy of people living on the brink of starvation, where whatever food can be secured is flavoured only by relief and bitter distant memories of how satiety feels.
Hitler’s rise to power is part of the landscape of this novel, and it was interesting to read about the ascent of the Nazi party through Lilly’s eyes; it was easier to understand how Hitler secured his grip on the broken nation when I read about it through human experience rather than political intention. I did note multiple points in the plot where my background in history (and the ridiculous amount of reading I accomplish) boosted the fluency of my understanding. The way the novel is constructed, however, would allow almost all readers to appreciate the plot, regardless of their knowledge of the early 20th century.
Another excellent feature of this novel is Beatrice Colin’s seamless telling of a German story in English. Many historical fiction pieces interject words and phrases in another language in an attempt to ensure the authenticity of the voice and setting. For me, reading back and forth from one language to another is awkward, distracting, and often unnecessary. Colin made the right choice with The Glimmer Palace, and the result is a narrative voice that reads like a smooth translation into English.
Be forewarned, those of you with delicate tastes, that Beatrice Colin has written an adult novel for mature readers. I don’t believe in censorship in literature, and the realness of this book is what makes it so striking, but the tangibility of human suffering and the choices of desperate characters might disturb some readers. Surprisingly, there is very little profanity or graphic sexuality in the novel, but the events and issues it addresses are gritty at best and downright gravelly in spots, so expect to be unsettled by this one.
I enthusiastically recommend The Glimmer Palace. The layers of human relationships, hopes, betrayals, and loyalties create a plot line and characters I know will be on my mind for days. I won’t go into the details and spoil it for those who decide to read it, but the novel explores the best and worst qualities of human beings so believably, and, at times, devastatingly, that I am still stunned by the book. I put it down at five this morning, disappointed that it was over.
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