I was provided with a free eARC* of this book via NetGalley and the publishers in exchange for my honest review.
*eARC: electronic Advance Review Copy.
Title: The Light at the End of the Day
Author: Eleanor Wasserberg
Publisher: 4th Estate
Release Date: 8th July — out now!
Genre: Historical Fiction
So, I have a soft spot for historical fiction, if you didn’t know already! I know WWII fiction is everywhere but I still go for it every time. You can imagine my excitement then, when I spotted this on NetGalley to request! The title reminded me of All The Light We Cannot See, which is another WWII historical fiction, but The Light at the End of the Day follows a Polish-Jewish family, while All The Light We Cannot See follows French characters and German characters. While of course I knew Poland was invaded by the Nazis, I didn’t know many of the details, so it was interesting to read about what was quite a different experience.
Before the war, the Oderfeldt family are wealthy, a sophisticated couple with two young daughters. The early part of the story establishes their life as it was before the war, which I really enjoyed reading. The father, Adam, commissions a painter, Jozef, to paint his youngest (and favourite) daughter Alicia. I love reading about art in fiction, and the description of the painting and the process was so interesting. The painting scenes as well really brought the two young girls and Jozef into their own, and gave them beautifully developed characters. Initially I saw Alicia as a spoilt brat, and Karolina as stand-offish and reclusive, but through the painting scenes their characters, as well as the painting, became more fleshed out, colourful, believable. Adam and Anna, the parents, came into their own as well, though Adam is more of a minor character than the women of the family.
Something I really enjoyed about this book was the displacement it showed. The characters are forced to move from place to place, initially fleeing their homes before being caught up in a flood of refugees fleeing Poland to Ukraine, in the hopes that the Soviets will arrive in Ukraine before the Germans do. With so many settings in the book, it would’ve been easy to have them all blur into one, or to have them all feel the same, but every setting the characters end up has a unique atmosphere that distinguishes it from the rest: even returning to a previous setting after a lot of time has passed feels completely different. Wasserberg manged the split across settings and time periods beautifully, jumping from country to country, backwards and forwards in time without creating any confusion or uncertainty: the reader is there every step of the way. The straightforward writing style allows for this, keeping the reader on track. While I do love stylistically innovative books, I think Wasserberg’s writing style was perfect for the story.
A warning to anyone who reads this book: it might just rip your heart out at the end. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the ending was quite bittersweet, and one seemingly small decision has a massive ripple effect. I’m not one to get emotional at books, but I did feel a bit emotional at the end. No tears, but definitely a sense of a circle having been completed and the weightiness of the implications of that. I can certainly imagine the potential for tears is there if you are someone who tends to get emotional at books!
Something I didn’t realise while I was reading the book, but found out afterwards was that the painting Jozef does of Alicia is actually a real painting. The painting in question, Portrait of a Girl in a Red Dress by Józef Pankiewicz (1897) was visited by the author as a part of the writing process. I’m a big fan of ekphrasis and the inclusion of visual art in literature, so to learn that the painting so painstakingly described throughout the process was really exciting to me and of course, the first thing I did was look it up and feel a slight pang of disappointment when it wasn’t exactly as I had imagined it myself. Of course, nobody will ever imagine it exactly as it is. Even someone who’s seen it before might have a slightly different image in mind.
I did really enjoy reading The Light at the End of the Day and learning more about the invasion of Poland and the effects this had on the Jewish population in Poland. It’s been quite a while since I read a book set in WWII, so it was great to return to the era that made me fall in love with historical fiction (looking at you, (I have previously received PR products from Penguin) The Book Thief!). I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in historical fiction, of course particularly WWII. I enjoyed reading a WWII book set entirely outside of Germany, because it offered a slightly different perspective that I personally haven’t seen explored in fiction before.