Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert is a beautiful book. It delves into the stories of three German citizens affected by the Second World War. Although none of them directly take part in the violence and atrocities associated with Nazi Germany, the three of them are implicated because of their nationality and family history.
The book is made up of three stand-alone stories, each which follows the different characters through their experience of the war. The first is about Helmut, a young man in Berlin, who is rejected by the army because of a medical condition. He spends the war mostly alone, taking pictures, while other men go off to fight and families flee to the countryside.
Then there is the story of Lore, a girl from a well-off Hamburg family, who is left in charge of her four younger siblings at the end of the war when her Nazi-supporting parents are taken to prison camps. Lore and her siblings hide in the south of the country until she leads them on a journey by foot back to Hamburg to find their grandmother.
These two stories build towards the third, which is set decades later in the 1990s. In contemporary Germany, Micha tries to uncover details about his grandfather’s involvement in WWII. This process, however, reveals his own guilt about being the grandson of a Nazi solider, and, it would seem, his guilt about being German.
The Dark Room looks at war stories that aren’t usually discussed, and illuminates a perspective of World War II that is not often seen. These are the stories of people who were on the wrong side and were blamed for it, yet as individuals they did nothing to deserve blame. The characters of Helmut and Lore only live on the fringes of the war, knowing their parents’ support the Nazi regime. They are simply people dealing with the effects of war: they witness air raids and death, homeless- ness and hunger. By telling these stories, Seiffert avoids the overarching narratives of a violent and hostile Germany at war, and creates space to find the people who made up the nation.
The story of Micha stands somewhat apart from the first two, and brings to the forefront issues of national and familial identity. Though Micha was born decades after the war, he carries around guilt and shame about being German because his grandfather fought for the Nazis. For Micha, the nation and his family are all implicated and blamed for the mere fact of being German, and the book examines the way individuals can feel responsible for history even without having lived it.
The Dark Room is an exceptional read. The writing is bare and delicate, and Seiffert weaves compelling narratives that draw the reader in completely. The work is labeled as a novel, although it consists of three stand-alone stories with no overlapping characters. However, the stories chronologically and emotionally build towards the last one, and in this sense, The Dark Room develops the way a novel is expected to.
What makes The Dark Room so unique is that it is unafraid to look at the humanity that lived behind Nazi Germany. It tells the stories of average people faced with enormous realities, with the implications of being part of a nation that was so horribly in the wrong. It examines the way national narrative and family history are inexplicably intertwined. The Dark Room is a necessary read for anyone who wonders about how we are defined by the history that surrounds us.
The Dark Room was published in 2002 by Vintage Canada.