The Things We Cherished, by Pam Jenoff

Review published on May 30, 2012.Reviewed by Deborah Brooks

This is Pam Jenoff’s fifth novel, and her third to be set against the backdrop of World War Two and the Nazis. It has a dual narrative which tells the story of Roger Dykmans, a successful businessman who has been charged with a heinous war crime in which he is alleged to have betrayed his own brother with catastrophic circumstances, and the modern day legal team who are defending him – sometimes against their better judgement.

The dual narrative works fairly well with both stories being well drawn and convincing. The book delves back into Roger’s past as his defence team try to get behind his own silence on the matter and discover what really happened that drove one brother to betray another. As they do so they uncover a story of love that surprises them and confounds their expectations. The modern day love story that unfolds is perhaps a little predictable but it is good to see a strong female character in charge of herself and the situation, even if she does go weak at the knees for her handsome co-lawyers.

I however, had the unfortunate experience of reading this book in the same week as I read Aharon Appelfeld’s superlative Blooms of Darkness, a book also set in the shadow of the Nazis and one that has just won the author the Independent Prize for Foreign Literature, and deservedly so. Blooms of Darkness is a beautifully written, understated exploration of how people can still live and love even in the most oppressive circumstances. The Things We Cherished is not a terrible book, and in places it is gripping and interesting (it’s clear that Pam Jenoff is knowledgeable about both the historical and legal contexts of the novel), but it is not one that particularly illuminates our understanding of what it was like to live through such terrible times.

Of course, this is a thriller and has no pretensions to being a profound analysis of human nature, but I suppose that in essence I find myself uncomfortable with the fictionalisation of the holocaust when it seems purely to be with the aim of making the stakes of the thriller higher – the betrayal that Roger is accused of is so very terrible because it endangers the lives of so many (fictional) children. We know of course that such things probably did happen as undoubtedly individuals were put in terrible positions and of course authors are entitled to revisit history in whatever way they see fit. However, if holocaust thrillers are to become a genre (and I sincerely hope this is not the case), you won’t find this reviewer reading any more of them.

 

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