Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Suzanne Leal’s earlier book The Teacher’s Secret dealt with the search for dignity amid rumour, scandal and other forces generated by a specific individual. In The Deceptions Leal is back with a similar book on the theme of deceit, this time at both individual and collective levels. She has used her considerable expertise in refugee law to write a compelling and sensitive story based around the Nazi-led pogroms of the Jews in World War II.
Deceit comes in a number of forms. There is Hana Lederova who has convinced herself that she could “leave it all behind me. All the dead, all the misery, all the loss” (4) but realises that she does not have the strength to ignore the past. Hana’s father, the dentist with a thriving practice, deceives himself into believing the Nazis would leave him alone, a Jew, to go about his business undisturbed (9). Karel Kruta, the Czech gendarme, instrumental in rounding up Jews for the attention of the Nazis persuades himself that the process of gathering the Jews was orderly, for “he and Milos had simply been doing their job” (14). Karel’s affair with Hana is deceptive of Karel’s wife Irena, who much later deceives her husband. Then there is the grand deception that the Nazis tried to implement with their policies of relocation of the Jews, not for resettlement but for annihilation. And, amid many other examples, is the big one perpetrated in the final pages of the book.
The theme of deception is prominent. But it is not treated as an abstract condition. The title after all is The Deceptions. The author plans to write about them as individual entities, which probably explains why chapters are not numbered but named. Keeping track is a frustrating exercise until one realises how each new entry enriches the knowledge we already have about a previous entry. Part I introduces in order Hana, Karel, Hana, Karel, Tessa, and Ruth. Confusing at first sight, frustrating when trying to keep track, enriching as the story unfolds.
Theme and structure are present and workable. However a major feature of the book’s success – for successful it is – is the author’s realisation of her characters. When she writes about Hana, for example, Hana is the focus; she inhabits the world of the Jew caught in the Nazi trap. She dominates the scene and her view counts. She becomes that segment. Until Hana’s friend Eliska reaches her own crisis point, this character plays a dominant role but is always the second character to Hana. Yet her efforts are the ones that see Hana through. Hana lives because Eliska is there, “…my constant, my friend, my support, my crutch…when I lost my will to get through the day, Eliska would be there, her gentle voice reassuring me and softly urging me forward” (170).
The sharp focus on character, structure or setting is a major strength. The author has learnt to limit her characters to a number that readers’ powers of recall can retain. She presents them in the main as either admirable or evil and conflicted, but occasions exist when human frailty is allowed to surface. Tessa’s love life, her inability to resist the advances of her boss Evan or her new lover, Jon, her brittle self-esteem, show a very complex character. Evan’s conduct is reprehensible, Jon is just too understanding, the balance is not right. Tessa, caught between the two, is not only weak, she is unbelievable. As a fictional character, she is a struggle for me, but I have a suspicion that Suzanne Leal, in her life as a lawyer, probably witnesses much of this frailty and indecision. The closing scenes in the book are challenging and are used by the author to ease the Minister of Religion into the concepts involved in confronting personal dilemmas.
This book is complex, the characters have lives remote from one another but are welded into some sort of identification and similitude. It is a remarkable achievement and, while the actions inflicted on others are horrendous, and will have earned the reader’s opprobrium, primarily I see in this book, the painstaking construction of a fine piece of original fiction.
By Suzanne Leal
Allen & Unwin