Reviewed by Robert at Angus & Robertson:
Magical realism dances with dire Nazi evil to cast a vital new perspective on well-known history in this masterful new novel from Leah Kaminsky, our fiction pick for March.
As children, Ernst and Herta shared their love of birds and nature, with the whole world before them. Years later, they reunite as a young and handsome couple in mid-30’s Berlin, but much has changed. Ernst is now an ambitious zoologist, keen to curry Nazi favour to ensure funding for an expedition to Tibet, while the beautiful and spirited Herta will support him in any way she can. Both will soon come to learn that the Third Reich requires more than simple compromise, threatening the joy and humanity of their lives and country.
Based on the very real 1938 Schafer Expedition, a Himmler-funded quest to find the roots of Germany’s Aryan race in the Himalayas, this book is superbly researched and brilliantly done. Kaminsky uses the rise of Nazism as a pervasive backdrop for the story of Ernst and Herta, two lives that reflect a culture lost in fear and greed and headed for inevitable turmoil. This book is about how people become distorted, losing their connection to nature and love as their energies are given over to mad science and cold, brutal ideology. This might sound oppressive, but be assured that the book is immensely enjoyable. The writing is immediately captivating, its themes layered deftly by Kaminsky, and the story flows beautifully as a result. You will come to love the music-loving and slightly rebellious Herta, who is the poetic heart of the book. Her wry humour in the face of Nazi doctrine is the perfect foil to Ernst’s stuffiness.
The story is also populated with many birds and animals, most notably a panda that unexpectedly appears to provide wise narration from a museum in 2019. This may sound improbable but it works splendidly, allowing Kaminsky’s characters to reveal their true natures in their interactions with the animals. In doing so, this book is astonishingly clever in the way it delivers its case to the reader. There is so much meaning present in the details, and yet it is restrained and softly placed. Kaminsky pleads for us to put all creatures into perspective, and to be wary of mad pursuits that punish the meek. That she does so with such poetic and moving storytelling is impressively powerful.
Leah Kaminsky has achieved a wonderful thing with The Hollow Bones, and I recommend this book to readers and book clubs everywhere. It’s a thought-provoking and entertaining read that leaves you reflecting on life, love, nature, and the limits of ambition.