“He fell in love. It was his life.” These final words of The History of Love are the perfect conclusion to a funny, sad and beautifully constructed story about the power of love, art and imagination.
Nicole Krauss skilfully combines distinctive writing styles to create memorable, authentic characters with their own voices and personalities. You can’t help but feel an immediate connection with the elderly retired locksmith, Leopold Gursky, whose wry sense of humour in the face of overwhelming loneliness will quickly find a tender spot in your heart.
Leo’s memories of growing up in the town of Slonim, which was “sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia”, conjure up horrifying impressions of World War II that few of us could imagine. It is here that Leo’s life begins and effectively ends after he loses his family and friends to the Nazis, his manuscript to friend Zvi Litvinoff, and his one true love to America and another man. Leo’s inability to love again is heartbreaking, as is his compulsion to do something, anything, to be noticed in the world – a sharp contrast to the invisible life he led while hiding in the woods during World War II.
Then there is the 15-year-old Alma, whose teenage thoughts are captured in list fashion, as if taken straight from the pages of an adolescent diary. The death of her father has left a gaping hole in her family, and her vain attempts to arrange a romance to fill the void in her mother’s lonely heart are incredibly touching. As for Alma’s younger brother, Bird, the way he withdraws from reality, takes refuge in religion and is ostracized by his peers evokes a powerful sense of compassion.
The intricately woven storylines in The History of Love demand your full attention, and while they do threaten to become overcomplicated at times, they keep you guessing about how they will intersect until the very end. Some reviewers felt Krauss’s execution of a “book within a book” fell short of its conceptual ambition, but I found Leo’s chapters to be delightfully imaginative, adding depth to his character.
Whatever shortcomings readers may find in The History of Love, the book certainly makes up for them in being a glorious celebration of art in all its forms. References to great writers, painters and musicians are peppered throughout the novel, and further research into these figures makes for an exceptionally enriching reading experience.
Above all, it’s the emotional response to Krauss’s engaging and original cast of characters that makes this book so special. The everyday struggles of Leo, Alma and Bird will remain etched in your memory, and you will still hear their voices, long after the final page has been turned.
“What makes this book outstanding is the graceful and exact quality of the writing, and an unusual warmth." - The Telegraph
"A tender tribute to human valiance and stoicism. And who could be unmoved by a cast of characters whose daily battles are etched on our minds in such diamond-cut prose?” - Independent on Sunday
"One of the most passionate vindications of the written word in recent fiction.” - Spectator