A few weeks ago, I happened upon a collection of short stories by Julie Orringer called How to Breathe Underwater. The last story, entitled Stations of the Cross, drew my attention and so I read it first. I was enraptured. The story drew me in and has haunted me in the weeks since. I flipped back to the front of the collection and read the rest of the stories. Brilliant, but the last one remained my favorite.
Had I not been so taken with just a few pages of Orringer’s writing, I might not have tackled her nearly 800 page novel that I knew would take me deep into the dark days of the Holocaust. I grieve to think I might have missed the epic that is The Invisible Bridge just because I didn’t want to read a Holocaust novel.
The story is sweeping and grand, weaving through different countries, but Paris and Budapest come into sharp focus. One of the most fascinating parts of reading different books about the Holocaust is how different countries almost had personalities in their responses to Hitler. Hungary’s war-time persona is one I knew nothing about.
However it is the souls of the characters not the history lesson that made this novel one I could not put down. (I have carried it everywhere for a couple of weeks now.) At times I was so frustrated with where the story was going that I wanted to put it down, but I was far too invested in the lives of these Jewish Hungarians. I think it is a particular writing strength to Orringer, mastered first in the short story form, to create such well dimensioned characters early on in a book. It’s kind of amazing really. I became attached to Andras and his brothers in the first chapter the novel. I knew that they would be headed into war just a few years into the story, but I was only pages in before I knew that I would need to finish it to know what happened to them.
The novel was actually birthed from the stories of Orringer’s grandparents who survived the Holocaust, so once I finished it I was so curious to know how many parallels there were in their stories. I read several interviews with Orringer and in a particular one, she said something that sums up why I feel like every possible individual story of the Holocaust should be written (and read),
I felt a real dread as I was approaching the part of the book where bad things were about to happen. The first draft of the book took about three years. By the time things really took a turn for the worse, I was about two years in and I didn’t want to send my characters to hell the way that I knew I would have to in the second half of the book. What happened, though, was that my family’s experiences became real to me in a way they hadn’t before. Part of what I found so difficult was not only sorrow for the characters I had created—in the end they are just figments of my imagination—but much more importantly, I experienced the real misery of understanding, finally, what happened to my grandparents and that whole side of my family. It’s one thing to hear bits and pieces but it’s another thing to be living the life of the characters for a couple of years and begin to see those lives break down. You really start to see that it wasn’t just this large scale tragedy, but an infinite series of tiny tragedies that added up to something completely beyond our imagining.
It’s this infinite series of tiny tragedies that keeps me reading stories.
Somewhere in the middle of all those events that make up a person’s life, amidst the overwhelming darkness, there are these exquisite moments of mercy and light. Reading this story makes my heart more alive and able to recognize those moments.