Secrets and Shadows

Rober­ta Silman
  • Review
By – March 8, 2018

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.

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