With the Germans rounding up Jews in the ghetto, Hugo’s mother desperately seeks a place for him to hide. In the end there is no one willing to help except her old school friend Mariana, now a prostitute. “Fate hasn’t been kind to her,” Hugo’s mother tells her eleven-year-old son, warning him not to ask any questions.
A night journey through the sewers brings Hugo and his mother to the house where Mariana lives. Hugo watches his mother until she disappears from his view, then follows Mariana to the closet of her large bedroom. There he spends his days with his imagination and his memories. Sometimes at night he hears noises and quarreling from Mariana’s room; sometimes she forgets to bring him food; sometimes she lavishes him with affection.
Alcoholic, self-pitying, and self-loathing, Mariana always speaks of herself in the third person, as if to separate herself from the person she has become. When she is down, Hugo tries to cheer her, recognizing her limits but nevertheless attached to her. From this beginning blossoms Hugo and Mariana’s love. At first Mariana and Hugo are mother and child, but their closeness matures into complete intimacy and a deeply felt coming-of- age love. Their time together culminates in a brief idyll after they flee the brothel ahead of the Russian army.
Fluidly and sparingly written, Blooms of Darkness is told almost as a dream. The story takes place somewhere in the Ukraine, some time in the mid-1940’s; Hugo and Mariana never use their surnames; the reader learns them only toward the end of the book when they are said by others. With a war raging around them, two people, ripped out of their lives by forces they cannot comprehend or control, find in each other — if only for a moment — comfort, pleasure, and love. And then their dream ends. This is a beautiful book.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.