Review by Robert O’Hearn
Readers of Leah Kaminsky’s masterful debut novel, The Waiting Room, will have eagerly awaited her return to fiction. Awarded the Voss Literary Prize 2016, The Waiting Room was a haunting story of love and intergenerational trauma, a reflection of the Holocaust’s long legacy and its weight upon the present. I thoroughly recommend it as a most compelling novel, moving and authentic.
It is wonderful to see Kaminsky return with such a startlingly interesting novel. The Hollow Bones confounds expectations in the most delightful way. Based on the very real 1938 expedition of zoologist Ernst Schäfer to Tibet (funded by the S.S. in a hare-brained quest to find the origins of the Aryan race in the Himalayas), the story explores the explorer, and all that motivates him.
As a youngster, Ernst was the bird-loving nature boy, happiest in his forest with with his sweetheart Herta. Reuniting as adults, the couple’s romance is the core of a story set against war and darkness. We watch as ambition and the times take a toll on their perfect love, with the young Ernst constantly corrupted by his compromise with power, subject to the whims of his patron Heinrich Himmler and treachery of the Third Reich. Each compromise is a small deal for which he eventually pays a huge price. And these deals implicate the loyal Herta. Obsession and madness follow, as does the growing poison of Nazism, all leading to a devastating twist.
Nestled within this tale is a surprising appearance by Panda, a cub shot and stuffed by Schäfer, and still residing in the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History. Panda observes all the humans over his decades in the museum, and speaks to us from 2019, his astute takes on visitors deftly pinning their foibles. This may sound incongruous. A stuffed panda takes up the story? But the device works brilliantly, balancing and extending the events of the past, reminding us of the continuity of human attitudes. Panda speaks to us gently of the “sentient beings” and the much-needed respect for all life. He is the soft victim, harmless and unprotected, caught forever behind glass.
Leah writes exquisitely, with a poetry that never slows the captivating narrative. There is an authentic and lively feel to events, and the book grabs the reader immediately. Characters are vivid and the reader will quickly fall in love with the compassionate Herta, with her love of beauty, music and nature. Thankfully she remains a light in the very dark times.
The Hollow Bones is also richly multi-layered, full of symbols and nuance as it explores wider issues of ethics, change, and the human-nature relationship. It also has much to say about taxidermy and hunting; the crazy idea of loving nature by controlling and destroying it. Kaminsky reveals much of her characters through their treatment of animals. The character of the new Deutschland is likewise revealed through its cultural fascism; destroying music and art, sublimating marriage to doctrine. The intolerance of imperfection, be it human or natural looms large.
Strange birds populate the book; some are human, and some are feathered. Some steal nests and break bones, and some sing and nurture, some are free and some are stuffed. There is magic here too, contrasting the joyful earthy spells of the Tibetans and the power-hungry myths of the Nazis.
This book is perfect for book clubs and readers will enjoy the wealth of detail and meaning woven lightly through. It intrigues and captivates. It is passionate and life-assuring, thoughtful and important. The author skillfully blends gripping history with magic realism. The Hollow Bones speaks to us of faustian bargains and the corruption of innocence, but it is also a timely reminder of how society and science can be too easily co-opted to dark pursuits, not all at once but bit by bit. Humans are cautioned to be vigilant and mindful of our place in the natural order.
This is a significant and enjoyable read, telling of love and nature, power and evil. It is a call to pay attention, to be truly ‘sentient’. Leah Kaminsky has achieved a work of stunning originality and heart, reimagining a forgotten slice of bizarre history into a gripping tale of love and evil. It will leave you incredibly moved, breathless with heartache and pondering the fragility of human and beast.
The Hollow Bones by Leak Kaminksy will be published on the 5th of March and is available to order from Booktopia.
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The Hollow Bones
Berlin, 1936. Ernst Schäfer, a young, ambitious zoologist and keen hunter and collector, has come to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who invites him to lead a group of SS scientists to the frozen mountains of Tibet. Their secret mission: to search for the origins of the Aryan race. Ernst has doubts initially, but soon seizes the opportunity to rise through the ranks of the Third Reich.
While Ernst prepares for the trip, he marries Herta, his childhood sweetheart. But Herta, a flautist who refuses to play from the songbook of womanhood and marriage under the Reich, grows increasingly suspicious of Ernst and his expedition.
When Ernst and his colleagues finally leave Germany in 1938, they realise the world has its eyes fixed on the horror they have left behind in their homeland.
A lyrical and poignant cautionary tale, The Hollow Bones brings to life one of the Nazi regime’s little-known villains through the eyes of the animals he destroyed and the wife he undermined in the name of science and cold ambition.