Science provides a unique way of knowing. Scientists use an iterative method to analyze and piece together the jigsaw puzzle of reality. We rely on making detailed observations, constructing theories to explain these facts, then gathering new data to test and refine our theories. Rational and systematic, this process works splendidly – we have learned so much about ourselves, the Earth, our fellow creatures, and the universe! Yet once we adopt this scientific mindset, through training or through proclivity, it becomes difficult to fully recapture that experience of newly-minted, breath-taking awe. This is a fragile wonder, easily suffocated by the narrow focus and tedium inherent in the scientific process.
There are, of course, novels written about teenagers and novels that focus on coming of age, novels that that skirt the subjects of sex and drugs and death or, alternatively, focus on our first experiences of them, what the world feels like when you’re just learning its brightest and darkest corners.
But when you try to define the category, it remains slippery and elusive: difficult to delimit in terms of content, since YA now covers addiction and rape as readily as — and sometimes alongside — first crushes and homecoming dances.
In someone else’s hands, “Commonwealth” would be a saga, a sprawling chronicle of events and relationships spread out over dozens of chapters. But Patchett is daringly elliptical here. Not only are decades missing, but they’re also out of order. We’re not so much told this story as allowed to listen in from another room as a door swings open and closed.
After Auschwitz is an incredible book, remarkable for its unflinching gaze at the past and also for its hope. For some reason, the most moving part for me is a description of how, forced by the Nazi curfew to be at home every evening at 8pm, Schloss’s family became hooked on bridge. She writes: “I can’t prove it, but we played so much I believe I became one of the most outstanding, and committed child bridge players in the whole of Europe.” The tenderness and poignancy of that image of the child bridge player – but also her toughness and will to win – is unforgettable.