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When Reality Overwhelms Creativity

Awake in the Dark
By Shira Nayman
Scribner, 304 pages, $24.

‘Awake in the Dark,” Shira Nayman’s collection of short stories about American children of Holocaust survivors, is being launched into the chain stores with the highest of book-club hopes. The publisher’s press release features praise from Ursula Hegi (“brilliant and mystical stories”), and printed on the reviewer’s galleys is a strangely obtuse encomium from Mary Gordon: “Shira Nayman’s stories risk strong emotion and always clear the sentimental.” Is that good? It must be, because, according to the press release, when the lead story, “The House on Kronenstrasse,” was printed in The Atlantic Monthly’s 2005 fiction issue, composer Ben Moore was so moved that he created “an original piece of music to tell the story alongside the words.” Moore’s piece debuted October 10 at Nayman’s book party in Brooklyn, where actress Andrea Masters also gave a dramatic reading of the story.

It’s heartening, and a bit surprising, to see a publisher so enthusiastic about a short-story collection by an unknown writer. If only Nayman’s stories were as unexpected and refreshing as Scribner’s belief in them. The legacy of the slaughter has, of course, been worked over with such regularity that the subject allows little room for originality. This isn’t Nayman’s fault, but it is her problem — one she never resolves. As so often with Holocaust fiction, reality overwhelms our meager attempts at creativity, making them seem pitiable and beside the point.

Nayman seems well studied in the canon of American, and international, short fiction. There are magical realist touches, episodes of close observation in the Alice Munro style, the use of multiple narrators within one story. And each story works, in its own way: The plots are satisfying — the reader pushes through to find interesting twists at the end — but the effect is derivative. There’s the Jew who survives the Holocaust because of his fair coloring, the loathsome Nazi rapist, the European parent with the hidden secret. “Schindler’s List”? “Night”? “Everything Is Illuminated”?

The best stories in the book show a gift for suspense. “The House on Kronenstrasse” follows a middle-aged woman, Christiane, from New York to Germany, where she was born. Christiane’s mother, a Christian refugee from World War II, has just died, leaving behind this deathbed utterance: “The house on Kronenstrasse. You know the number? Number fifty-eight.” The two women were never particularly close, and Christiane isn’t sure what her mother is talking about. So she goes to Heidelberg and finds the house — which, it so happens, is being vacated by another recently deceased elderly person. Christiane decides to rent the small, humble place. Living there, she discovers the building’s great secret, which leads to a far stranger secret.

The power of Nayman’s surprises depends on how curious you are by the middle of the story and how startled you are at the end. In “Dark Urgings of the Blood,” a secular Jewish therapist discovers an unexpected connection with her patient, a 32-year-old Hasidic mother of seven. In “The Porcelain Monkey,” a German track star’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism begins to make sense only slowly. Credit Nayman with bravery: The game of plot twists is a dangerous one, and the list of those who have played it well, like Aesop, O. Henry, and Maupassant, is woefully short.

Most fiction succeeds on other strengths: evocative language, authentic characters, an eccentric intelligence. Nayman is entirely in thrall to her plotting, so other aspects of the craft, such as language, suffer. The result is too often bathos, as in a passage about New York City from “Dark Urgings of the Blood,” which at 140 pages is really a novella: “I wonder, for a moment — automatically, force of habit — about the varied lives being lived there this very instant: luxury apartments housing luxury lives; treacherous ghetto hallways; smoked salmon being ordered in the Plaza Hotel; and somewhere else, not so very far away, a young girl succumbing to rape.”

That breathlessness undermines Nayman’s seriousness of purpose. Nayman is to be commended for risking sentimentality, and in surer hands her narratives could have been some sort of new literary intoxicant. But these stories are what happens when a writer of real gifts allows her excitement to exceed her talents.

In her acknowledgments, Nayman writes: “These stories were inspired by Amos Elon’s brilliant book, ‘The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews of Germany, 1743-1933.’ I am deeply thankful for the life-altering experience of reading this book.” I, too, loved that book, and I can see being tempted to send Elon a literary mash note. But if I wrote stories in homage to Elon’s sad, gripping, ironic work of history, they would fail even worse than Nayman’s. There are exciting moments in “Awake in the Dark”; there is betrayed talent in this book. Sometimes, when we stand dumbfounded by history, a quiet reverence is the surest path.

Mark Oppenheimer is the editor of In Character and the author of “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

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