11.08.2011

Review: The Woman Who Heard Color, by Kelly Jones

Art detective Lauren O'Farrell is on a mission. She's seeking art believed lost in the second World War with the goal of returning pieces to their rightful owners. While gathering research, she comes across the name Hanna Fleishmann -- a woman who purportedly collaborated with the Nazis to rid Germany of "degenerate" art. Obsessed with her discovery and eager to see it through to a recovery, Lauren digs deeper and eventually locates a woman whom she believes to be Hanna's surviving, though elderly, daughter Isabella. What she's looking for, and what she hopes to get from Isabella, doesn't compare to what she ends up finding.

As Isabella relays to Lauren what she knows of her mother's life, the reader is treated to a much more detailed experience--a rich, vibrant and beautiful story that touches all of the senses. If you think about it, the film "Titanic" is very similar -- Bill Paxton's character is looking for the diamond, he discovers that the elderly Rose has information about it, we kind of get glimpses into what she's telling him, but the real treat is in her memories, where we learn she's not necessarily sharing, or able to share, everything...but the viewer gets to see it all.

Hanna Fleishmann, born Hanna Schmidt, was a young Barvarian girl who found work with her sister in the home of an art dealer in Munich. Though a humble beginning, she becomes the key figure -- the champion, really -- of modern art in Nazi Germany. Hanna is a synesthete--her brain confuses the stimuli of one sense with the effect of another; specifically, she hears music when she sees color, and she sees color when she hears music. It is this condition, this gift really, that endears her to her employers and ensures her future happiness, a contentment that sees her through her education, her marriage, and the birth of her children. But after a whirlwind of terrible misfortune, and after numerous attempts to join her children sent ahead to America, Hanna is hired by the Third Reich to catalogue an entire warehouse of "degenerate" art, taken by Hitler from museums, private collections, and homes. Knowing that the future is bleak for most of these pieces, she convinces the government to sell many of them off to other countries as a way of getting money for the purchase of classical German art (the kind approved of by the Führer). Meanwhile, she scrambles and manages to hide some other pieces away, keeping secret records, and saving even more of the art for posterity.

Historical fiction can be tricky. On the one hand, you want the author to provide you with a realistic rendering of a particular time period. But what you can often end up with is an abuse of cameos. If Adolf Hitler had appeared once in this novel, particularly toward the end of Hanna's time in Germany, that would have been appropriate. But he's in the story at least three separate times. The first is a foundation scene that, given the later bits, seems to be innocuous. The second is gratuitous (he eats a lot of potatoes). The third is the only one that really makes sense--a speaking engagement at which Hanna, as a special guest of the Führer, is present. His presence seems a little over the top. But I opine that Jones makes up for this by allowing Hanna's tale to be so moving. Her story is reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement in that the reader doesn't really understand how much was kept secret, doesn't understand what our protagonist's burden really was--what she took with her to the grave--until the end. As a work of Holocaust fiction it's somewhat benign, but as a story about art and love, it's beautiful.

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