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Book Review: The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchez

 Book Review: The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchez


Holidays were for the young, for people with a whole life ahead of them, while for me the long slumber was waiting just round the corner.

When concentration camp survivor Julian travels to Costa Brava, its with a sense of purpose. Having been released from hospital after a heart operation, and hearing of the news of the death of his dear friend and fellow survivor Salva, Julian is imbued with a determination to see Salvas life-long goal through to its end.  Others had no alternative but to keep quiet and suffer the fear, shame and guilt of survivorsBut we became hunters, he says. The two have spent their lives tracking down surviving Nazi war criminals, many of whom they find living the normal, quiet lives of retirees, as though the past never happened.

Its an undertaking about which Julian is ambivalent, however. Although he longs to see justice meted out, he worries that the remainder of his life, like Salvas, will be spent in such a manner, rather than being lived. When we left there, I just wanted to be normal, to join up with normal humanity. But [Salva] said that this was impossible, says Julian.

This turns out to be the case, as Julians moral compass precludes him from allowing others to fall in harms way. By chance, Julian meets young, pregnant Sandra, a girl who has formed an unwitting friendship with an elderly Norwegian couple, Fredrik and Karin. Fredrik and Karin, of course, are two of those Salva and Julian have been searching for, and not only that, but theyre infamous for the atrocities theyve committed. She was alone, says Julian. A perfect victim for the Christensens. They might have met her on the beach and singled her out to suck her young blood, absorb her energy and defile her freshness.

Sandras initial impressions of the Christensens, however, are entirely different. Sandra is an ingenue in many ways; she is trusting and friendly, and is seeking for a place into which she can be accepted. Her relationship with her family is distant at best, and she is uncertain about whether she wishes to pursue a relationship with her unborn babys father. Her first meeting with the Christensens occurs when they assist her on the beach, and soon enough she finds herself pursuing a friendship with the quiet, mannered couple, going so far as to imagine herself as their adopted grand-daughter. She was a trusting girl who believed in her right to be in the world without anything bad happening to her says Julian of Sandra.

Sandras innocenceor unwillingness to be pulled away from her new lifeis such that it takes a good deal for Julian to convince her that the Christensens are not the kind seniors that they seem to be. Everyone knew that the Nazis had existed, that they got turned on by the swastika and all that. But Fred and Karin? I knew them, protests Sandra. Upon seeing Fredrik in his SS officers uniform, Sandra is convinced that he is merely playing dress-up: its not until she finds Fredriks gold cross hidden away in an enormous case of priceless jewellery (that had probably been snatched from somebody, maybe even along with her life) that she begins to accept Julians case. Even so, she struggles to reconcile these unseen, distant actions in the Christensens past with what she knows of them today. For Julian, however, the opposite is true. For him, its the past thats the truth, not the present.

Both Sandra and Julian slowly find themselves drawn into a complex, terrible nest of Nazis and Nazi sympathisers, a group that includes not only the elderly, but also the young. Theres the eerie notion of group law and groupthink, with the members apparently acting together and as a part of the group rather than as individualsand thus without individual culpability. This depersonalisation, which occurs on so many levels throughout the book is horrific. At one point, Sandra is speaking to Aribert Heim, who says to her: You young people are crazy young people are always crazy. We also did terrible thingsThey did not seem terrible to us in those days. We did these things because we could and they seemed normal. Like putting a ring in your nose.

Even the way these individuals relate to each other is viciously pragmatic, such as how Karin perceives of Fredrick. If anything happened to Fred, it would be the end, do you understand? says Karin at one point, and at another: He was a spectacular manthe man Id been dreaming ofa superior mancomplete. But neither Karin nor Fred are spectacular any longer, and like Julian, they and their cronies are ailing. Its here where Julians ambivalence over his mission comes in, and where we see the depressing futility of it all: and nowhere is this more evident than in the twist at the books end.

The Scent of Lemon Leaves is a profound and difficult book in many ways, and endlessly posits questions regarding morality, individual purpose, and the fulfilment of retribution. And yet, the book as a whole didnt quite fall together for me. I found that the use of alternating first person narrators, although offering us deep insight into both Julian and Sandra, resulted in an uneven read, particularly in those scenes where we see the same thing from both characters point of view. Julians ambivalence over completing Salvas life work necessarily results in some narrative foot-dragging, but this becomes almost tedious after the first third of the book, as it feels that the narrative isnt progressing at all. On the other hand, some plot points are so fleetingly touched upon as to feel out of place, such as Sandras sudden falling in love with a person she meets only a handful of times.

In all, though a slow-going read, this is a haunting and moving read that persists long after youve put it down.

 Rating: star Book Review: The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchezstar Book Review: The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchezstar Book Review: The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchezhalfstar Book Review: The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchezblankstar Book Review: The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchez (very good)

With thanks to Bloomsbury Australia/Allen & Unwin for the review copy

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  1. This is still on my reading list, hopefully I will get to it soon. Thanks for the review Stephanie
    shelleyrae @ Bookd Out recently posted..Thrill Week II Review: Velocity by Steve Worland

    • Stephanie /

      Pleasure, Shelleyrae. :) I hope you enjoy it, and Im curious to hear your thoughts on the ending!

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