Eva Traube Abrams, a semi-retired librarian in Florida, is shelving books one morning when her eyes lock on a photograph in a magazine lying open nearby. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.
The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer—but will she have the strength to revisit old memories and help reunite those lost during the war?
As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.
If I’m terribly honest, this was a book that picked purely based on the fact that the cover is beautiful. The title did intrigue me once I read it, but it was really the cover that got me. I can happily say that this is one case where I accurately judged a book by its cover.
To start with, I loved that this book talked about the role that forgers played in rescuing people during World War II. I’ve read so many books set in this period, but up to this point none of them had really touched on this part of history. It was fascinating to read about the techniques that they used, the strategies they had in place, and the countless factors they had to take into consideration each time they created fake papers for someone. Harmel did an excellent job of uncovering the nuances of being Jewish in these circumstances, and the struggle of feeling as though you were abandoning your faith and family by taking on a false identity.
I don’t really have any major complaints. There was a bit of language and a few sexual innuendos, but all of it felt natural and served a purpose to both the story and the setting. The only minor complaint I have is that I fell in love with Eva and this story, and the amount of details made me think that she had to be at least based on a real person. At the end, though, I learned that she was an entirely fictional character. This really just says a lot about the extent to which Harmel developed her characters and their storylines, and the extent to which she researched the events related to this story.
Overall, this is a fascinating perspective on World War II that played on all of my emotions. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.