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The Book of Dirt (Bram Presser, Text)

Three books in one, The Book of Dirt is a remarkable tale of Holocaust survival, love and genealogical sleuthing by a grandson intent on finding the truth about his grandparents’ past. Like Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, it is not always clear which parts of this impressive debut are fiction and which are family history (sprinkled liberally and effectively with photographs). In essence, it doesn’t matter. As with all testimonies of this nature, the important thing is that readers are reminded not only of evil that must never be forgotten but of the resilience and survival instinct of the souls who survived and those who perished. Attention is captured from the start with the warning, ‘Almost everyone you care about in this book is dead’. As the noose of restrictions in Prague tightened after Nazi occupation, Jews were denied food, employment, education and even the ability of children to keep pets. Presser gradually reveals the wartime plight of his grandparents, Jakub Rand and Dasa Roubickova, and their families with visceral detail, written with a lyrical cadence borne perhaps of his musician’s innate rhythm. Though complicated Czech names and side stories within stories of Jewish legend sometimes distract from the narrative, Presser’s ‘generosity of expression’ can be excused. As he says, ‘We are all hoarders when it comes to the lives of those we loved’ and, in the end, we are left with a beautiful tale that will stay with the reader long after the book’s end.

Scott Whitmont is the owner of Lindfield Bookshop and Children’s Bookshop


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