Here’s the thing about being an avid reader who also dabbles in writing: every once in a while you come across a book so finely crafted, so compelling, with such luminous prose, that you think, “I’ll never be able to write like this, I might as well stop even trying!” A Fifty-Year Silence, by Miranda Richmond Mouillot (Crown, 2015) is one such treasure. I received this book for free from “Blogging for Books” for this review, though, so I have to at least try to write something that adequately communicates how extraordinary this part-history / part-memoir / part-biography really is.
Richmond Mouillot subtitles her book “Love, War, and a Ruined House in France”, which gives you a glimpse into the arc of the story. But if you approach it, as I did, thinking it will be another in the seemingly endless stream of “World War II Survivor” meets “I went to France and tried to fix up a house in a lovely medieval village” literature, be prepared to be surprised, or as I was, astonished. At the beginning, Richmond Mouillot tells this story from her childhood:
Take the day my friend Erin and I locked her brother in the bathroom, and Erin began belting out a loud rendition of “The Farmer in the Dell” so her parents wouldn’t hear him hollering for us to let him out: one minute I was singing along with her, and the next I was clutching Erin’s arm for dear life, as if she might pull me out from under the avalanche of fear now suffocating me. “Stop,” I begged her. “We have to stop. They played music to drown out the screams of the children when they were killing them” Years later, Erin recalled that she’d been so upset by what I’d said that she’d run crying to her father.
“What did he say?” I asked her.
“He told me you came from a family of Holocaust survivors with a lot of bad memories to cope with.”
All I could think was, I wish someone had told me that.
It turns out that this silence, this not talking about what happened to family members, is what the book ends up actually being about. As the author grows up, she starts trying to piece together the story of her maternal grandparents, two Jewish refugees who married sometime during or after the war and then divorced in the fifties, after which they never spoke to each other again and never re-married. Shortly before the divorce, they purchased a house in a small southern French village, a house Richmond Mouillot falls in love with during a visit with her grandfather and eventually tries to renovate.
The Holocaust aspect to this story does not become readily apparent until late in the book, when Richmond Mouillot begins investigating her grandfather’s role as a translator during the Nuremberg Trials. Because I spent thirty years teaching language, I was particularly moved by the evaluation of what that experience might have done to him. The way in which the pieces of her grandparents’ history fall into place makes this read at times like a mystery, but since the author is also a Harvard-trained historian, the attention to even the smallest detail makes this a solid addition to the historical record. Finally, the dialog is exquisite, making the book as readable as the best fiction and capturing the personalities of the author’s grandparents with subtle mastery. Witness this exchange in the airport, as Richmond Mouillot is escorting her grandmother from the United States to France:
…I squeezed her hand. “You’re such an extraordinary person. I’m so glad to be going on a trip with you.”
“My Godt.” She pulled her hand away. “Go walk around or something.”
The story of Armand and Anna is horrific, fascinating and compelling. In the hands of their granddaughter, it turns into a lyrical, evocative piece of literature that haunts me days after having turned the last page.