Truth is inspiring and a great basis for fiction. In the latest book from novelist Aharon Appelfeld, the setting is World War II Europe. Nazis have cemented their place in popular culture as the ultimate villains, real-life bad guys who through their atrocities have inspired all sorts of stories in both literature and film. Blooms of Darkness is one of many such stories to be told, but from a different point of view. In this tale, like so many others, the war is omnipresent, but the Nazis are encountered only in overheard conversations.
The main character in Appelfeldís story is Hugo. The boy of eleven is thrust into the protection of a prostitute named Mariana, a childhood friend of Hugoís fleeing mother. While Mariana performs her services for the men of the occupying German force, Hugo hides in the closet and can do nothing but listen and wait. The reader will remain there alongside him for most of the novel.
Hugo has only the vaguest idea of what is happening in the world around him and the building where he hides. He rarely ventures from the closet and cannot do much except think and wait. This establishes the premise, allowing the reader to better understand the boy as he suffers from forced introspection and fear. But it slows the development of the novel, and after several chapters of this the events seem repetitive. When the plot does progress, the events seem lackluster and are not enough to alter the monotony of the story.
As one may expect of an adolescent boy in a brothel, Hugo begins to fall in love with Mariana. There are several emotional struggles as Hugo faces the changes that are happening to him, his feelings for Mariana and the constant fear that at any moment that Nazis may find him. Saying that growing up during the Holocaust was difficult may be the understatement of both this century and that one, but nevertheless every time is difficult for adolescents, and readers will most likely empathize with Hugo.
Yet despite the sympathetic main character, there isnít enough to the story to keep readers interested beyond the predictability of the premise. Mariana is predictably unstable, Hugo is predictably curious about sex, and inevitably the two end up sleeping with each other. This scenario is so pedestrian it robs the story of deeper meaning and takes emphasis away from the horrors of the Holocaust. The Nazi threat is reduced to trivial as Appelfeld fails to capture the terror of a person in hiding, making Blooms of Darkness dreadfully average. Readers will be reminded of both The Reader and The Diary of Anne Frank and wish they had read either of those instead.
As the book drives towards its conclusion, the excitement picks up and the story improves. While the war comes to an end, Hugo is allowed to venture forth, and Appelfeld introduces some other residents of the brothel, building a larger character base. Unfortunately their stories seem to be unique and the characters more engrossing, so what are supposed to be subplots are actually more entertaining than the story itself.
When itís all said and done, Blooms of Darkness is a decent story - but thatís all it is. Appelfeld has a distinguished career as a writer and there is no doubt he has the capability for great novels, but this one does not come close to succeeding the way it should. It can be challenging to make novels interesting for readers, but considering so many other tales of World War II hit their mark, succeeding with this story should have been easier.