‘The end of a life was a disappointingly small moment that hung on the final exhalation of a breath.’
Halina Shore and her mother emigrated to Australia from Poland in the late 1940s, after World War II. Halina knows that she was born in 1939 but knows little else of her background. Her mother, Zosia, has never spoken about Halina’s father, about her family or life in Poland. And when her mother dies, she leaves little behind.
Halina is a forensic dentist, living in Sydney with her cat Puccini, when she is approached to be part of a forensic team investigating the site of a Jewish massacre in Poland. While relatively comfortable in Sydney, Halina seems restless and unsettled. Perhaps a visit to her country of birth might enable her to reconnect with her past?
Halina travels to Nowa Kalwaria in Poland, and finds a community divided over the investigation into the massacre. Many believe (or want to) that the Jews were killed by the Germans after the Russians left Poland. What would be the purpose in exhuming them? But what of the suspicion that the Jews were killed by the local villagers?
‘Halina glanced around the site. Somewhere in this dark soil, among the skulls and skeletons, criminology intersected with history, religion, sociology and psychology.’
Ms Armstrong approaches the investigation from two intertwined timelines. There are the events of 1941 leading to the massacre, and the present-day investigation. There are those in the present who think that the past can remain hidden, and there are those who’ve waited a long time to tell what they know. Learning the truth will not be easy for either the investigators or the villagers?
And for Halina?
I found this novel utterly absorbing. I also found the novel unbearably sad at times, with it’s reminders of unspeakable cruelty. But there are uplifting moments as well: courageous individuals who did their best against overwhelming odds. This novel, inspired by an event in Poland, is part history, part mystery and part forensic investigation. It explores both the rational objectivity of science and the irrational (at times) subjectivity of human behaviour.
This is a novel worth reading. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and confronting to be reminded of atrocity whether fact or fiction. But ignoring atrocity or pretending it hasn’t happened is far worse.