Book Review: Jakob’s Colors
by Lindsay Hawdon
Jakob, the young gypsy boy at the heart of Lindsay Hawdon’s debut novel Jakob’s Colors, spends most of the novel running and hiding from the Nazis in 1940s Austria, separated from his father Yavy and his English mother Lor, forced to live by his wits and the random and often terrified kindness of strangers. As he flees from one temporary safe haven to another, he tries to leave signs of his passage so his people can find him,and so they can know from his own experiences where those temporary safe havens are:
He went cross country, across field and wood. Went on foot, stole eggs and bread,following the mountain pass and then the stream where he could, the stream that he knew eventually wove from one estuary to the river, eventually to the lake. He left signs along the way, signs to show a path was safe: a white cloth tied to an overhanging branch, an arrow on an ancient trunk. In the hope that she would find him in that place of magenta and teal, of crimson and cobalt blue.
Along with homosexuals, Socialists, Communists, and of course Jews, the Nazis imprisoned and murdered thousands and thousands of gypsies in death camps strung all across Europe. As Hawson informs her readers, the Nazis considered them Ziguner – untouchables – and killed them as part of their mad eugenic dream of a purified race-table. This was the Porrajmos, the Gypsy Holocaust, and the subject, only comparatively rarely treated in English-language fiction, obviously moves Hawson deeply.
This can be perilous, this moving of novelists. Vita Sackville-West, no less passionate a person than Hawson at dinner parties or book soirees, used to remark that her heart had to be as cold as a ham in an ice box before she’d trust herself to write fiction, but in Jakob’s Colors, Hawson is well and truly defrosted – perhaps even a bit gone off, as British housewives used to say. Jakob’s desperate plight – not to mention the systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of his fellow gypsies – is plenty dramatic on its own, one would think, without passages like this one:
Laughter sounds as the sun slips out from behind a cloud, sending shafts of pinholed light down through the gray sheets above them, and everyone believes in that moment that “There is a heaven after all,” a sign at last amidst the wreckage of the present day. And it is then that Jakob moves for the first time, shifting in his premorning sleep, with the mention of the word heaven. He rolls onto his back, blinking back the fog of sleep, oblivious at first to his whereabouts. Then he’s alert, upright once more, as if to be caught sleeping were a crime. He buries his box beneath the cabbages, climbs down off his mound, his clothes stiff with congealed mud and grime. He sticks out in the crowd with his shoes of sackcloth, a sad clown of a boy. The loss that he feels lies beneath his skin like a pool below the finest layer of silk. The slightest tear and it flows over and around, the weight of water above him. His hand are jammed into his trouser pockets to save his fingers from the chilling wind. He hovers beside a pile of bruised cucumbers, longing to lick the skins, then moves on to the next stall, where a toothless woman hooks a rat onto a rack already heavy with pink-skinned rabbits, broken necks lolling their heads against their spines.
This kind of stuff – and the novel is filled with it – is not only a classic case of a writer laying it on with a trowel, it’s also inadvertently counterproductive; a sympathetic reader with every desire to hear the harrowing story Hawson wants to tell will nevertheless be yanked right out of that story by histrionic invocations of Heaven or grime-stiffened clothing or bruised cucumbers or hooked rats or pink-skinned (skinned?) rabbits or toothless old women, much less all those things crowded together in a single paragraph. Sometimes less is more – in fact, when it comes to historical fiction, often less is more.
There’s undeniable pathos in these pages, however, and Hawson shows a sensitivity to it that does her credit. And if her characters are fairly flat and predictable, well, do we expect much more from cause-novels like this one? Hawson mentions to her readers that official acknowledgments of the Gypsy Holocaust have been slow and grudging, both in Germany and in the United States. She’d clearly like to see that rectified. A little too clearly, as it turns out.