By Margaret McMullan
St. Martin’s Press; $23.95 History is what people remember, after all, whether it is History with a capital “H,” as in the history of World War II, or with a small “h,” as in the history of their own lives. Add to the confusion that just because something is remembered doesn’t mean it ever gets told — and it’s what isn’t told that fuels Margaret McMullan’s novel, In My Mother’s House. In the prologue, the reader learns that Jenny’s persistent refusal to share the story of her life with her only, much-loved daughter Elizabeth has created a chasm between them so great that the only way she can hope to breach it is to tell her daughter not only the story of her life but the story of her soul.
Most importantly to the reader, it is a good story. Ranging over time from the first stirrings of Nazism in Vienna in the 1930s to present-day America, it reflects the differences between mother and daughter in its very structure. Jenny’s first life in Vienna unfolds in her formal, ponderous voice still flavored with German, alternating with Elizabeth’s very contemporary American voice that reveals her mother’s second life by way of her own story.
McMullan, chair of the English Department at the University of Evansville, did impeccable research for the book, bringing the World War II era to life with stunning detail. Folded into a scene set in Kings Chapel in Cambridge is a wealth of information about the fate of the chapel’s stained glass windows during the war; the little-known, temporary loophole in Nazi policy allowing Jewish veterans of World War I to avoid internment if they agreed to surrender their property and leave the country becomes a puzzle piece in the story of the family’s emigration.
Her understanding of human nature is impeccable, too. The characters all ring true here — their human flaws both believable and forgivable because they are born of the author’s insight and compassion. In My Mother’s House comes as close as anything can to explaining a world that edges a little closer to extinction as the men and women who lived through World War II die off one by one, all too often taking their own stories with them.