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'Life Of Objects' Tells A Cautionary WWII Fairy Tale

Susanna Moore's latest novel, The Life of Objects, is a slim World War II saga that reads like a cautionary fairy tale: It's packed with descriptions of ornate furniture and paintings, lavish banquets, demons and diamonds. At the center of the story is a young girl bewitched by her own desire to live a larger life, a wish that's granted with grim exactitude. Clearly, The Life of Objects is not your father's standard-issue World War II novel; although, Moore's narrative angle on the war does remind me of Edmund de Waal's extraordinary 2010 memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes. In both books, the capricious nature of war — to obliterate or overlook — is explored through the fate of an aristocratic family's collection of fine art.

Our heroine and narrator in this novel is Beatrice Palmer, the only child of Protestant shopkeepers in the west of Ireland. The word Beatrice repeatedly uses to describe herself is "greedy" — greedy, not for money, but for something to happen. When the story opens in 1938, Beatrice, out of boredom, has taught herself how to make lace while she stands behind the counter of her family's shop. Beatrice explains that she's not allowed to read there, "lest it appear that I gave myself airs."

Soon enough, Beatrice's yearning for adventure is answered: A European countess, who's visiting the local landed gentry, sweeps into the shop, surveys the lacework, and whisks Beatrice off to Berlin, where she's to make tablecloths and the like for a wealthy couple, Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg. There's a Jane Eyre feel to Beatrice's arrival at the fabulous Metzenburg mansion, which is eerily near-empty of staff because of the coming war.

Instead of making lace, Beatrice is put to work packing up the Metzenburgs' array of priceless tchotchkes: "turned ivory" sculptures that are to be crated in barley; Old Master paintings rolled up pencil tight; and the Empress Josephine's yellow diamond sewn into a coat hem. Most of this treasure will be buried on the grounds of the Metzenburgs' country estate outside Berlin, where the family retreats for the duration. Felix, an otherwise good enough German, is on the outs, politically, with the Fuhrer; besides, as Beatrice tells us, Felix would much rather pursue his quaint connoisseur's life, satisfying "his compulsion to limit the world to the exquisite."

Susanna Moore is the author of several books, including a memoir, <em>I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai'i. </em><a href=""></a>
Denise Applewhite / Knopf
Susanna Moore is the author of several books, including a memoir, I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai'i.

Fat chance, not with those tanks ready to roll into Poland. The tension of this novel arises out of that disjunction between the static, gorgeously adorned life of the Metzenburgs and the depravity of war roiling just outside their gates. Moore is rightly celebrated for her lithe style as a writer and, in so many passages here, she nimbly jumps back and forth over the boundaries of the Metzenburg estate to give readers a sense of the chaos that's inevitably seeping through their charmed defenses. Here's Beatrice skittishly recalling the year 1943, a season of losses, outside the great house and in, as well as cosmic instability:

By war's end, Beatrice and her employers will be excavating that treasure she buried to barter for coffee made of roasted acorns, while marauding Russian troops violate their enchanted zone of neutrality. Moore doesn't exactly tell a "new" war story here; but, through Beatrice, she speaks of all-too-familiar atrocities in such a spellbinding way that she once again compels readers to, once again, listen. If the Brothers Grimm had tackled the rise and fall of the Third Reich, they might well have produced a tale that reads like The Life of Objects.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.