Title: The Painting
Author: F.K. Wallace
Length: Novel (65794 words)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie
In a nutshell: A classic love story, set against the backdrop of war and its aftermath. I cried more than once, but the perfect ending made it all worth it.
Stefan, a naïve young Pole, meets Gunter, an artist in 1930s Berlin. They begin a passionate love affair overshadowed by the rise of the Third Reich. Denounced to the Nazis, they are sent to Auschwitz as pink triangle prisoners. Some things even love cannot withstand. Forty years later Stefan returns to Poland with one question: when you have nothing, how do you prove that love ever existed?
This book will be a hard sell for many, because I know lots of folks don’t want to read war stories, concentration camps, Nazis, suffering, deprivation, killing, torture and more. This story has all that, but it also has wonderful, lyrical writing, incredibly researched historical details, characters that reflect an amazing resilience and strength of spirit in spite of overwhelming odds, and last, but not least, an absolutely perfect ending. What I really appreciate about books that are tough to read is that the pay-off at the end is so worth it and in that respect, this book did not disappoint.
The story opens in a café in Berlin where Gunter sees Stefan and says, “Can I draw you?” They go back to his apartment, where:
A scuffed wooden chair stood in the middle of the floor. Without hesitation I walked towards it, shedding my clothes. It seemed natural that I should be naked; there was no suggestion, no coercion. The smooth wood was cool and the chair creaked as I sat sideways, one foot tucked onto the seat beneath me, my chin on my knee. He did not take his eyes from my face as he reached for pen and paper and began to draw.
And so it begins. The story covers a five decade span, from the waning days of the Weimar Republic, through World War II, and then the years from 1954 on as Stefan tries to rebuild his life. He is ultimately successful and does find happiness but it is not an easy path. But to me, that’s what makes this such a good book. The characters and situations are so vivid and fully realized that it all came to life for me. Everything that Stefan saw, smelled, tasted, touched—I was right there with him, living the experience.
I’ve been on a tear of reading war stories recently, and this was the second WWII story I read in a week. I am struck by the idea that when we think about “war” as a global concept we lose sight of how horrible and devastating it is, and how, at the individual level, people, particularly soldiers and guards, can be incredibly cruel. Even so, people who suffer and experience unthinkable deprivations somehow survive, which is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Could I manage to cope if faced with torture, starvation, beatings, rape? I don’t know. I don’t think Stefan ever expected to have to answer that question either, but he did and the answer was yes. His journey is the story told in this book and how he got to the other side, both figuratively and metaphorically, is a powerful tale.
I was surprised when I finished reading this to see it was just over 65,000 words. It felt much more epic. I don’t mean that as a criticism—it is more a reflection of the very good writing. The author was parsimonious and made every single word count. No padding or extraneous scenes in this book, that’s for sure!
This is an independent, self-published book—one of the “gems” I like to find. As such, it’s available only as an ebook: on Buy LinkAmazon in a Kindle version and Smashwords in multiple formats. I hope readers who are intrigued by this review make the effort to seek this book out. And if you’re not sure, you can read the first 25% on Smashwords, which I hope is enough to convince you to give this one a go.