The plot of this intriguing new novel oscillates between a Jewish boy’s life in wartime Berlin and that same person’s life as a temporary returnee in 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall comes down. Author Roberta Silman carefully measures the changed and unchanged conditions in Berlin in these two eras, both for the city at large and for Jewish-German relations.
Successful lawyer Paul Bertrand, born Paul Berger, was the child and is the man returning to face his past. Paul was divorced by his wife, Eve, five years earlier after twenty-three years of marriage, in part because of his unfaithfulness — yet he has somehow persuaded her to accompany him back to Berlin. The Bertrands have three young adult children: two sons and a daughter. The manner in which Paul and Eve, separately and together, have parented these children is an interesting thread through the novel. The couple’s relationship to their own parents and other relatives also informs the narrative in significant ways.
A prosperous family, the Bergers were secreted during the war in their own home. Silman vividly paints the sharply contrasting characters who protected them. Her astute portrait of the families’ interactions reveals a toxic mixture of indebtedness and resentment.
When he returns to Berlin, Paul releases and understands the childhood horrors he has repressed. In fact, his narrative, and Eve’s reaction, only make sense because the communication takes place in Berlin. Eve needs to witness Paul’s response to his complex homecoming. She must be there, and she must gauge how to respond. Silman includes passages set in italics to explore various stages of past and present actions and their implications. These sections operate like prose poems, glossing the conventionally set text and enriching it in unexpected ways.
Secrets and Shadows is a penetrating psychological novel that plumbs the depths of how an individual’s guilty secrets can undermine his inner life and his marriage. Paul’s guilt goes beyond survivor guilt, and his damaged psyche, resulting from childhood trauma, needs to be healed. Can it be healed? Can he be forgiven? Can he forgive himself? Can Eve, at the end of this ordeal, find the man with whom she fell in love? Silman’s lucid and penetrating prose moves readers as far as possible toward the answers with grace and compassion.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.