The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill
Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
For decades after World War II had ended in Europe, even after the bombed out ruins had been cleared away and the cities, towns, and villages of Europe had been rebuilt, the scars of the war were still visible on the people. This was most evident in the men, in the former soldiers. Missing limbs were common: legs, arms, hands, feet. And eyes. So many men wore special glasses with an opaque shield over one eye. This was the most unsettling, perhaps because it was unexpected. Limbs, yes, but faces—eyes, jaws, ears? Somehow those wounds were more intimate, not imagined so readily. And there were undoubtedly more, hidden under clothes, whose nature could only be guessed at. And these were just the physical scars. The scars of war, of course, are borne by more than soldiers. Civilians suffer horribly from the enormities committed by opposing armies. They also bear wounds, sometimes physical, always internal.
And in the aftermath of war, as people try to go about their daily business, to re-create the lost normality they once enjoyed, they continue to struggle, both to remember what once was and to forget the horror that destroyed it. And it is this insoluble tension between forgetting and remembering that is at the centre of Natalie Morrill’s impressive first novel, The Ghost Keeper.
During the 1920s, Vienna is a model of culture and ethnic co-existence. Josef Tobak is Jewish. Friedrich Zimmel, the scion of a wealthy industrial family, is not Jewish, but he is smitten with Josef’s older sister, Zilla. Friedrich begins to seek out the teenaged Josef to get close to Zilla. And so a friendship begins.
The 1930s arrive, and Josef becomes an adult. He is a quiet man, an accountant by trade. But he has an odd hobby. After a spiritual epiphany in his boyhood, Josef spends time in an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Vienna cleaning away leaves, straightening fallen tombstones, chasing away foxes that would dig up bones, and always feeling the presence of souls around him. Josef feels his job is to make sure those souls are never forgotten.
And then, in March 1938, comes the Anschluss. Austria becomes part of Hitler’s Third Reich, and everything changes almost overnight. Viennese society cleaves into pro- and anti-Nazi factions. Jews are fired from their jobs all over the country. Friedrich joins the Nazi party, and his firm becomes a supplier to the Wehrmacht. While Zilla quickly leaves for France, Josef stays in order to protect his extended family. After getting caught up in the widespread violence against Jews, though, he decides to send his wife and their infant son abroad for their safety. By that time, exit visas are hard to get, but Friedrich, putting friendship over politics, pulls some strings, and mother and child head off to Shanghai, which is considered safe due to its well-established international community. Josef stays behind, but as tensions get worse, Friedrich convinces him, too, to flee, and helps Josef get passage to New York. Then war breaks out.
The book does not linger over the details of what is well-known history. The war moves by at a distance as Josef settles in with other Jewish ex-pats, and when the fighting is over, he decides to return to Vienna, a city now under US occupation. There he confronts the changes that have occurred. So many people are gone, and those who remain have changed, including Friedrich. Josef’s friend is overweight, sullen, and drinks heavily. He will not speak about the war years. Even to Josef. He cannot get over something he has done. Yes, Friedrich protected some Jews, this is well recognized. But what else happened to change him so, to fill him with such shame? In time, Josef’s life takes on more normal rhythms. He even returns to take care of the graveyards. Incredibly, they have not been destroyed, though they are in serious disrepair.
Much is lying under the surface here, not just the buried headstones needing resurrection. The man who tends the graveyard is, of course, tending many other things. The allegory is evident: the forgotten souls of the graveyard are mirrors of the forgotten souls of those civilians, especially Jews, lost in the war, people who simply disappeared without a trace or record of their fate. The question is: will they be remembered? And the challenge is how to remember them. That challenge is most pointed in the character of Friedrich. How do we remember him? As the love-struck rich boy who fell in love with a Jewish girl? As the Nazi collaborator? As the man who saved several Jews? Or as the man who committed the betrayal that eats away at him?
Early on in the book, author Morrill introduces, and gets away with, a device that few authors would dare try, let alone succeed at: she has the voice of the narrator, Josef, alternate between the first person and the third person, both in the present tense. And it works. The point, one supposes, is to project a sort of spiritual duality within Josef, both as the man living in the present, and as an older man reflecting on his memories. In any case, this device helps to impart a resonant depth to the novel that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
The Ghost Keeper is a masterful work, one to be savoured for the compassion and empathy of its portrayal of people trying to sort out the hard complexities of a tragic time.
The Ghost Keeper is published by HarperCollins.