At the heart of this deeply affecting novel is an historical fact: The Nazis, in an attempt to conceal details of the Final Solution, forced newly arrived prisoners at Auschwitz and other camps to write letters home, assuring relatives that everything was fine. The author imagines that, due to superstition and the Nazi predilection for recordkeeping, a compound of Jews fluent in different languages is established to answer these letters, even though the vast majority of the intended recipients have already been killed. Although the surreal existence of these “Scribes” is depicted in detail, the emotional focal point of the story revolves around the relationship of the two non-Jewish protagonists who attempt to keep them safe.
The central tension of the novel involves a letter which the philosopher Martin Heidegger sends to his optometrist, not realizing that the man has been deported to Auschwitz. To hide this fact, the Scribes are asked to devise a plausible response, and events take a dangerous turn.
The author makes effective use of short, clipped dialogue to convey a pervasive sense of dread and danger, and the compelling characters and plot pull the reader into the story. In addition, letters from concentration camp inmates at the start of each chapter provide a constant reminder that one of the most searing experiences of the Holocaust was the forced separation of loved ones. Without resorting to scenes of carnage, the author reminds us of a time when the feeling of safety was just a distant memory.