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Holocaust Stories Yet to Be Told: Toynton's The Oriental Wife

09/28/2011 01:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011

There are still stories to be told about the Holocaust and its aftermath, and Evelyn Toynton's second novel, The Oriental Wife, belongs on the shelf with the very best of them. Despite the title, it's the story of a group of German Jews who move to America in time to escape the genocide -- but endure more than Freud's quotient of "common unhappiness" once they're safely here.

Toynton, an American who lives in England, is a masterful stylist and storyteller whose focus is on three sharply-drawn characters, in three sections that span the century: charming young Louisa, who leaves Germany for London, then America; the German friend from childhood whom Louisa marries in New York; and their daughter Emma, as an infant and then as a New Yorker in her twenties, angry, bereft, in love with a refugee herself, and bearing the weight of German history and her family's own tragedy. By the time the story shifts to Emma as an adult, we're so invested in the characters that this quiet, meticulously written novel takes on an unexpected urgency.

The family's heartache is not the result of genocide, but of the slip of a surgeon's hand during brain surgery on Louisa shortly after Emma's birth. The tumor is benign, but the results of the operation leave Louisa partially handicapped, no longer appealing to her young husband, and not fully able to care for her daughter.

The community of German refugees takes center stage as Louisa falters, along with a hired nursemaid named Aunt May, whose love and light shine magnificently in the novel and in Emma's life. Waiting in the wings is a brazen, coarse secretary who will capture Emma's father's broken heart.

The novel moves deftly from pre-war Germany to upper Manhattan at mid-century, from the unspoiled Maine coast before universal indoor plumbing, to New York in the late 20th century, from Louisa as a carefree young immigrant, to Emma, in love with a displaced Cambodian. The story is rich with complex, fully-realized characters from a multiplicity of worlds. The wonder is Toynton's ability to portray their love and anguish with such delicacy, insight, and authenticity.

The Oriental Wife is a character-driven novel, which means, among other things, that plot twists are minimal, and that it gets better the more time you spend with it. It's finely wrought but never precious; deeply felt but never sentimental. In this fine writer's hands, the material - the Holocaust and its after-stocks - is devastating all over again.

Evelyn Toynton lives in Norfolk, England. She was kind enough to answer these questions by e-mail.

While writing The Oriental Wife, did you feel intimidated by the virtual library of books already written on the Holocaust and its aftermath?

I didn't feel intimidated exactly, but I certainly consulted a great many of them. I had been reading about the Holocaust and the persecution of the German Jews in the '30s for years, at times obsessively, so to some extent I had already absorbed a lot of the "material" before I started work on The Oriental Wife. But of course one can never truly absorb it, or truly know what it was like. At the same time, there is what feels like a moral necessity to try to imagine it.

Were there particular writers or books you emulated as you wrote The Oriental Wife?

I can't say I was consciously emulating any other writers or books, but that doesn't mean they didn't influence me. Perhaps the most directly 'relevant' book was Lore Segal's Her First American, a wonderful novel about an Austrian Jewish immigrant in NY after the war. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's "potentially autobiographical" account of emigre lives in My Nine Lives, as well as some of her earlier short stories about Jewish immigrants, always stayed with me. And then I would have to mention Jean Rhys, though I could never hope to emulate her, and W.G. Sebald, whom I could hope to emulate even less. They are the two writers I have lived with most closely, the ones whose books I find myself continually rereading. If, as Kafka famously said, a book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us, theirs are the sharpest axes I know of.

I read somewhere that you worked on the novel for 10 years. Can you tell us something about your writing process and why you think the book took this long?

It is embarrassing to admit how long it took me to write this book, and the fact that it's based on the story of my parents (a story I didn't actually know in any detail, and with which I obviously took great liberties -- but still, the essential facts are there) doesn't seem like a sufficient excuse! But I tried writing it in the second person, then wrote it in the first person from first one and then another character's point of view; I made the daughter a junkie in one version, a civil-rights lawyer in another; I wrote wrote 150 pages telling the story as a series of brief vignettes about photographs in an imaginary album, etc. etc. Each time, I would begin with a sense that I had finally found my way in, and then my hope/confidence/desire to keep going petered out, and I'd start over. When I could bring myself to look at some of my early drafts, which happened just a few months ago, they didn't seem notably worse than the final version I came up with. So I don't really know why I couldn't keep going with them, or why I had to exhaust all the possibilities before I could just tell the story. It was a ridiculously inefficient process.

You do a fair amount of book reviewing for Harper's, and you have a book about Jackson Pollock coming out. Which came first, your fiction writing or your literary criticism and journalism?

I always wanted to write fiction, though it seemed like hubris even to try. When I was in my mid-20s, I began work on a novel, but I was always so conscious of how flawed it was that it felt like torture. I would force myself to sit down and write, and then, after a very short time, feel so discouraged that I'd lie down and read someone else's novel instead. In my 30s, I started writing book reviews and literary essays and short memoirs, which came much more easily, so I concentrated on them for a while. I also did some travel pieces and wrote about art for a glossy magazine or two. But I never entirely stopped thinking about writing fiction. I completed an awful novel that I never showed to anyone and then, after several false starts, wrote Modern Art fairly quickly.

As an American writer living in England, do you wish you were closer to whatever passes for the American fiction-writing scene?

Not really, though I miss my writer friends, and living in the countryside means one doesn't get much literary conversation. But then I lived in northern Vermont for years, and there certainly wasn't much literary conversation to be had there either!

What are the benefits of exile for you as a writer?

Maybe it's good not to be too conscious of what is happening on the scene, though I'm not sure about that.

Cross-posted from Head Butler.

Elizabeth Benedict is a novelist, journalist, and writing coach at Don't Sweat the Essay. Her most recent book is the anthology, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.