The Hollow Bones implores us to pay careful attention to the crucial lessons we might learn from our not-too-distant history.
'I remember you once told me about mockingbirds and their special talents for mimicry. They steal the songs from others, you said. I want to ask you this: how were our own songs stolen from us, the notes dispersed, while our faces were turned away?'
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.
Booktopia Staff 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.
About the Author
Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize. She conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician-writers, which starred on Booklist and is co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
"From the embers of history, Kaminsky weaves a cracking tale of adventure, competing loyalties and the folly of sacrificing reason on the ideological altar."
"In this prescient and thoughtful novel, a long-dead animal displayed in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia murmurs about the wild places of its lost life, while the story of the scientist who destroyed it exposes the collaboration between totalitarianism, corrupted science and the slaughter of people and animals."
"Played out against the backdrop of impending war, The Hollow Bones is a Faustian tale of love, ambition and treachery. An ominous and beautiful novel that examines the dark appeal of power, and the lengths some men will go to achieve it."
"An evocative, harrowing story of one man’s obsession to preserve nature in a glass jar, The Hollow Bones reminds us creatures of the wild belong there and we destroy their habitat at our peril. Kaminsky has magically woven the dual narratives of past and present through a unique telling of such an important historical tale, which will thrill, enlighten and reward the reader."