Well, there are the three Proctor brothers, and a sister and two parents, a well-meaning yet slightly nosy neighbor and his wife, the state trooper, the nephew, the brother-in-law, and throw in a couple drug dealers, a girlfriend, a waitress, and the narrator, and it makes for quite a few points of view, but such is John Clinch’s Kings of the Earth, and I haven’t read Clinch since his debut novel, Finn, which I absolutely loved and will try not to review here because this is about Vernon, Audie, and Creed Proctor, and everyone attached to the mystery that is their lives as well as the mystery of how Vernon actually died, so you must understand that what you have here is a slowly unfolding tale told through different perspectives and eras, but as you piece together the Proctor brothers’ existence you’ll begin to comprehend why they are like they are—maybe—but I couldn’t believe anyone, even fictional, could live as they do with years of grime worked into their very pores until it colors them and everything they touch a shade of wretched yellow to downright repulsive brown, and try as you might, the smell of them, which takes on a life of its own like another voice, comes right off the pages of the book with Clinch’s frequent reminders in the form of well-written description that you really could do without because you’ll find yourself wrinkling your nose and holding your mouth open the way you do when they’re trying not to smell something bad, but now you’ve gone and made it worse because you can taste it, and Lord knows you don’t want to taste it, but like looking at a bad car accident, you just can’t tear your eyes away from the pages because you need to know what happened, how, and why, and Clinch certainly delivers as he discards the ridiculous writing rule being taught to writers today about choosing one point of view and sticking with it, and let me tell you he brilliantly breaks that one and many others in such a way as to give close-up views and sweeping panoramas, so you find yourself drawn in like one of those visitors who comes to see Audie’s whirligigs, but now you don’t know who you’re rooting for, and then all too soon the writing stops but the story never does.
Don’t read Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer if all you want is a quick read about the Holocaust. Today’s writers are cranking out enough of those complete with prescribed character arcs and inciting incidents occurring within the first three pages guaranteed to keep you hooked. If, however, you’re willing to be stitched into the fabric of life of the protagonist, if you are willing to invest yourself in details and description, if you are interested in conversation that reads like it takes place at a large family gathering, then Anya just might be your novel.
The book reads like one long memory, and I believe it is this quality that makes the events of Anya’s life so seamless. The transition from well-off daughter, wife, and mother to a woman scrambling to keep her family together in the ghetto and then hold herself together mentally and physically in the concentration camps is so smooth. Perhaps it’s because very little detail about the war is provided as if the reader should already know the particulars of how, why, who, when, what, and where. Rather, we are given Anya’s perspective and reaction to everything that occurs. In fact, it’s very late in the war years that Hitler is even mentioned and only then as somebody far away who somehow has power over Anya’s life.
The reader will always be right in the moment with Anya. Schaeffer creates tension that keeps the reader from holding on to Anya’s past because the danger of the situation prevents one from mourning what was lost. There is simply no time to do so. That will come later. Maybe. As for the future, don’t bother contemplating it because it is inconceivable that a future—at least a positive one—could even exist with all Anya is forced to endure and to do just to survive. The only saving grace is that this is not your story, dear reader. Unless maybe it was.
What I found to be the most chilling as I lived Anya’s story with her was the fact that I mentally collected her actions and words to fall back on in case I found myself in a similar situation. Perhaps it is the political, social, and cultural climate of today that subconsciously prompted me. I honestly cannot say. Still, for a work of fiction, Anya is one novel whose influence and impact will stay with me for a long time. I have said before that finishing a well-written book was like leaving behind great friends. The same is true for Anya. The ghosts will live on.