Heirlooms by Rachel Hall
BkMk Press, 2016
Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms is a series of related stories set in France during World War II and in the US and Israel in the decades following. Characters reappear across the fifteen stories that make up the collection, and their development across time produces a satisfying, cumulative effect. Throughout the collection, there is a sense of news from far off, of partial reports. The characters’ necessarily limited perspective reflects, too, the shaping of narrative, the way stories are made up of selected parts, obligatory silences.
The title of the first story establishes the setting: “Saint-Malo, 1939.” Lise is traveling: “Lise refolds the newspaper on the train seat next to her. All week there has been bad news from the Line and nothing to do but wait for more. And then this morning the cable: ‘Come immediately. Esther dying.’” Esther is Lise’s sister-in-law, wife of her twin brother Alain, and Lise will claim the dying Esther’s child, her niece, and raise her as her own. Lise, her husband Jean, and the child Eugenie (later Genny) are the core of the book.
The characters’ knowledge of events is often partial. Sometimes this is circumstantially necessary (fighters in the Resistance who know no more than they must), other times it is the result of censored news reports or closely-held family secrets. The lack of information evokes the fear and foreboding of wartime—not knowing what might happen, whom to trust, what policies might be put in place or how they might be enforced. After the war, silences both systemic and circumstantial continue to shape the characters’ lives. An individual grudge (letters unopened, messages not forwarded) can color an entire life.
Several of the stories offer a sideliner’s perspective, the experience of observers from unexpected margins. In “Generations,” an old man climbs a tree and witnesses prisoners being executed on a neighboring property. Shifts in perspective allow individual motivations to resonate, although a few of the shifts in point of view, as in “White Lies,” are not wholly effective. The stories are filled with small betrayals and petty cruelties, as when a young wife demands a child’s stroller in exchange for barley. Hall’s descriptions are clear and evocative, her characters’ perceptions persuasive: “Maybe grief isn’t ever pure, he thinks, maybe it is always diluted by guilt—for things done or left undone, for infractions large and small. And there is the possibility, too, that guilt is easier than grief, in its familiarity, its sly shuffling of self to the forefront.”
The many languages the displaced must struggle to master contrast with those that come easily. On the ship to the US, Jean meets a returning serviceman who asks to bum a smoke. “This will become Jean’s line, his greeting to friends and strangers alike. He likes the sound of the words in his mouth, the casual, almost funny sound of ‘bum,’ the way the thing is reduced to its function. And smoking is a language of its own, a language he speaks easily, without an accent in any country.” In “A Handbook of American Idioms,” Jean and Lise learn English in California, a process framed by a series of sayings: “raining cats and dogs,” “not out of the woods.” They share a meal with a Chinese couple from their class, Mr. and Mrs. Wu, the two couples’ discomfort with the local food providing common ground.
In “The War Ends Many Times,” “The war ends not once, in a single moment, but many times,” first with victory celebrations, then the gradual return of meat to the markets, pastries to bakery windows, dresses to the shops. The war ends again and again, and yet it continues, present in individual memories, in what people choose to hide.
The heirlooms of the title are another series of absences. The title story is structured by a list of what was left behind: “They left behind furniture. … They left behind friends … They left words, phrases, a sureness with language. Their mother tongue. They left their names because they proved difficult for Americans. … They left money—only a small amount—in a bank in Saint-Malo. … They left books. … They left the sound of cathédral bells.” In an odd retention, the word cathedral bears the French accent, carrying forward some of what has been left. This gesture is repeated later in the collection. Words in French appear throughout the book, sometimes glossed, sometimes not, but cathedral with the accent is a little different. Because the word is otherwise spelled the same way in English, the two look the same on the page. The diacritical mark literally marks the “accent” that will continue to mark the characters’ speech.
Much is lost: the elegant stroller, a sense of safety, longed-for children never conceived, lives almost spared. And yet, something is passed on, inherited. The heirlooms here are the stories themselves, along with the ability to recognize them, to find the stories at the margins, or hidden under the floorboards, protected under a sleeve.