In the King's Arms: Holocaust Novel Finds Hope in Love and Compassion
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In the King's Arms by Sonia Taitz, McWitty Press (October 11, 2011), 230 pages
Even as the generations of adults who survived them age and die, the horror of the Nazi genocide remains in the painfully vivid art and literature that recorded and imaginatively recreated it. Victims and survivors produced the most astonishing works, no doubt, and for generations to come, the writing of Anne Frank, Primo Levi, and Jerzyi Kozynski, to name but a few, will exemplify the humane, enlightened European culture that the Third Reich targeted for annihilation. For almost seven decades now, the subject of the European holocaust has fueled every kind of novel, philosophical, graphic, comic, and even pornographic. With In the King’s Arms, Sonia Taitz’s debut novel, we have our first love-at-first-sight romantic, comedy of manners Holocaust novel.
Set in the 1970s in Oxford, England, where the heroine, Lily Taub, has come on a one-year scholarship, the novel is as much about the 1940s Polish death camp that Lily’s parents have survived. The smart, outspoken Lily is eager to escape the worry and sorrow of her refugee parents and the gloom of their Lower East Side apartment for the good old fun and witty British conversation she believes is awaiting her in the pubs and dining halls of the privileged university. But at Oxford, Lily finds instead indifference, snobbery, and a new source of sadness and isolation in a gloomy room and bleak streets of ceaseless rain.
When Lily meets Peter Aiken, an Oxford student, actor, and wit, who is charmed by her quick mind and good looks, Oxford theater, parties, and chattering chums abound, and Lily feels she has ascended to the life she was meant for. In the King’s Arms, an Oxford pub, Lily meets the most handsome man she’s ever seen, and is thunderstruck with unknown desire. When Peter invites Lily to the home of his aristocratic family for winter break, the beautiful young man—Peter’s younger brother Julian--appears. Now true love joins sexual longing, and Taitz, a playwright too, renders the first moments of sudden but certain love with spare but pulsing dialogue. Here’s the scene in which Lily and Julian first speak:
“What is your name?”
“Are you sure?”
“Who am I?”
A moment passed before she answered, eyes wet.
But a series of events ambush Lily’s dreams, and like any good hero, she finds herself alone to battle demons and ghosts. Unfairly blamed for the injury of the youngest Aiken boy (echoes of blood libel), Lily is sent back to Oxford. Alone, friendless, homeless (her room has been taken), and falsely accused, Lily is the suffering Jew she has been determined not to be. And discovering she is pregnant by Julian, she finds herself reliving her parents’ life in the camps, revisiting stories and a history she has sought to bury under cleverness, frivolity, and romance.
The dark tragic history that disrupts the novel’s glittering present is most compelling. Set against genocide, most narratives pale, and Taitz's happy ending might seem unconvincing. But survivors' children must themselves survive, and much of Sonia Taitz's novel draws on her own life. The daughter of concentration camp survivors suffering great personal pain and loss, Taitz finds hope for the future in the human capacity for compassion and change. In her engaging novel, the immature and irresponsible Julian rises to the occasion, becoming, we are led to believe, a truly noble man and mensch. It is in Lily, though, that Taitz shows us the most convincing transformation, from heroine to hero, with the courage to look back on a dark river of pain without losing the chance to proceed on her path.