The one that links all tragedies together

Gudrun Mouw, From Ashes into Light (2016)

I may not be the right person to tell you about this book. I got interested in this book on Netgalley because the writer had such an incredible life journey. Gudrun Mouw was born in East Prussia during the war and emigrated to the US at age 7 in the 1950s as a refugee. I figured the book would draw on her personal experience that seemed quite unique.

But I had also ignored little bits of information that didn’t converge with my expectations: that she calls herself a Yogic writer, that she lives in California as a yoga and meditation teacher, that the book’s themes are about transcendence and mystical resonances between people’s sufferings across centuries and continents. Not exactly my cup of tea.

Three narrative threads run in parallel: Ruth, a Jewish girl from Austria during World war 2, who is sent to Auschwitz, Saqqapaya, a Native American who lives through the Spanish conquest, and Friede Mai, a young girl born in East Prussia during the war who later emigrates to the United States. The voice that unites these three tragedies is that of a phoenix, all-seeing, all-feeling creature who is able to be reborn from ashes (hence the title). Each of the three main characters have sudden visions of the other two characters’ experience and suffering. The tone is that of a Buddhist magical realism that really perplexed me, being a very rational European sort of person.

While I’ve read Buddhist memoirs and non-fiction before, I’ve never read a novel that tries to weave Buddhist concepts of suffering, of compassionate awareness, of transcendence into the plot itself. While it’s not badly written at all, I’m not comfortable with the accumulation of personal, intimate tragedies and suffering per se. I know that I might seem insensitive, but too many tragedies in this book sort of cancelled each other out. I know some historians and philosophers insist that the Holocaust was a unique tragedy because of the political project to annihilate completely a race. This position has been widely discussed because the 20th century had its fair share of other mass murders (Cambodia springs to mind, but unfortunately it wasn’t the only one). Here the novel takes quite the opposite view that all the tragedies are the same. And I can see that at a personal level, for the victim, they really might be so.

As you can see, this novel is both intensely emotional and touches very deep questions. While I’m not totally convinced by it, it was an interesting reading experience.

I received this book on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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