Customer Reviews of Hidden Life: A Memoir of August 1969
Beautifully written, dark but compelling
Some years ago I read the book this author, Johanna Reiss, wrote for children called "The Upstairs Room." It is a famous book, and deservedly so - some call it the Anne Frank story with the happy ending, for the author was a hidden child in Holland during the Holocaust. She and her sister were Jews, concealed by simple farmers for three years. "The Upstairs Room" ends with a jubilant scene of liberation by the U.S. Army. The girls can run free again, in the sunlight, with no fear, and the farmers who saved them are brave, kind and heroic. ... But of course real life is far more complicated, right? In a children's book, the author would not reveal all the nuances of what happened, how she felt about it,and what became of her. But in her new book, "A Hidden Life," we learn that the carefree future suggested by the happy ending in "The Upstairs Room" was not to be for Johanna Reiss. She moved to America as an adult and married an American Jew. At his urging, she returned to Holland with their two young daughters on a vacation to do research for the book. While she was in her homeland, her husband, back home in New York, killed himself. This horrifying situation is revealed almost immediately in "A Hidden Life," so I don't feel that I'm giving much away by revealing it here. The book is utterly compelling despite the early denouement; you are right there emotionally with the author as she stumbles, in shock, tries to make sense of it, revisits scenes from her youth in the upstairs room and her courtship in America, and as she looks for clues that might explain what caused her husband to take his life. This is a dark book, no doubt about it; not for children. But I couldn't put it down. I found myself reading it 1 a.m., and nearly missing my stop on the train because I couldn't take my eye off the page. The writing is beautiful and eloquent; it has a poetry and an unconventional sensibility that I attribute to the fact that the writer is not a native speaker of English. She chooses her words in ways that make every sentence important and unusual; her cadence and word choice cannot be anticipated, they can only be experienced. From her very first sentence to her very last, the writing is pitch-perfect, and the story - of survival, grief, guilt and of trying to make sense of the random tragedies life sometimes hands us - is unforgettable.
A Hidden Life is no ordinary memoir. It is a profoundly honest
account of Johanna Reiss's husband's suicide. A senseless act
without explanation. No Note.
Johann Reiss recounts her painful experience in a beautifully
poetic stream of consciousness style.
Even though Jim's death is revealed in the beginning of the
book, I still felt compelled to find out what happens at the end.
The writing has a certain eccentricity that at times amuses as
well as evokes sadness.
Accolades to Ms. Reiss for writing a most compelling memoir.
In 1972, Johanna Reiss wrote The Upstairs Room, the story of her two-and-one-half years spent in a closet-like room (along with her sister) in a farmhouse in Nazi-occupied Holland. The Upstairs Room was directed at a young readers' audience, was critically successful and received a Newbery Honors award together with universal professional recognition. Some fifteen years later, Mrs. Reiss returned to Holland to reunite with the family which had sheltered her, and the places where she had spent her childhood, and detailed this experience in The Journey Back, a straightforward narrative directed at adult readers.
During this period, she was living with the memory of a beautiful but bittersweet marriage, which is now chronicled in A Hidden Life, published in January. Although A Hidden Life covers the last months of this marriage, it has taken the author ten years to to properly put her thoughts to paper and the result is a fascinating documentation of a remarkable but tragic experience.
Although the first two books in the trilogy were written in a strictly narrative style, A Hidden Life is a combination narrativereflectionstreamofconsciousness form requiring little or no additional concentration on the part of the reader, but clearly conveying the emotional state of the author. The pages turn easily and swiftly, and Mrs. Reiss even manages to inject a wry sense of humor from time to time. There is no need for the reader to peek at the end for the conclusion, which is known at the outset, or to look back from time to time for the cast of characters, which is limited and identifiable.
Although A Hidden Life concludes the trilogy, I do hope that, before too long this remarkable woman will be persuaded to return to the keyboard and mouse.