The Nature of Blood

By Caryl Phillips

The Nature of Blood

I picked this book from the library because Fella and Filly were getting rambunctious, because I wanted something to read, and because I liked the picture of the Bridge of Sighs on the cover. Once in a while I choose a book that I know absolutely nothing about so that I will be utterly surprised by anything I discover in it.

I was surprised that it was sort of a Holocaust book. I was quite a few pages into it when the Holocaust appeared, and it was from the point of view of a survivor from a camp that has been liberated. There are flashbacks and the character does some good, hard remembering about the camps, but it’s no Schindler’s List or The Pianist. Once I finally got to the part set in Venice, the bridge made more sense. (Other editions have a sculpted statue on the cover. Interesting.)

So it’s been more than two weeks now that I’ve finished this book, and as profound as it was to read it just hasn’t stuck with me. There was nothing particularly grisly in it, although some of the concentration camps scenes were bleak at best, so I can’t blame the Holocaust parts for automatically flipping that pretend you never read it switch in my head. I remember all the characters as people quite well, so it’s not a forgettable book, but it’s fuzzy in my head as more of a thought experiment or mood piece rather than a novel. Sure, these are tragic tales, and they are all about people judged and doomed by blood rather than by any qualities they held as individuals. They are looked at as representatives of races, not seen as humans. They all feel despair at their inability to escape the role carved out for them by victors, and none of them are really able to get out. Pretty much they all fall prey to the prejudices of the group, and if you were given half of each character’s story and were asked to predict the outcome, you’d probably guess right. So I appreciate how all the threads weave together in this tapestry of history repeating itself and man’s inhumanity to man, but the book is too impressionistic for my liking.

It’s thoughtful, it’s artistic, and it’s full of significance. It makes interesting observations about life and it’s full of period detail, but despite the fact that it was a page-turner, it left me mostly unaffected. I am quibbling, I believe, over the form of the story. Like I said, it’s very impressionistic. I’ve never been a big fan of the short story as a genre–I do like novels more–and this book was several short stories intersperse. With the exception of one character, they weren’t really even interwoven.

I give the book an unenthusiastic four-star rating (out of five). I was impressed while I was reading it, but now that it’s over, and back at the library, I don’t really have that much to say about it. I won’t be so arrogant as to say that I learned nothing from the book, because that would be untrue, but the insights and revelations about being alone and being persecuted weren’t really earth-shattering. I would absolutely read more by this author, however. Next time I’m chasing a baby through that aisle of bookshelves at the library, I’ll look and see what else he’s got.

I feel a little shallow reacting to the book in this way, but I am a shallow person. It’s true that I have never liked short stories that much; I never really understood the point. You invest all this time and energy experiencing the text, and it’s over too soon with too little going on. It’s the rare short story (I include Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Miss Emily” on this list) that entertains me a second time. Yeah, I’ll repeat the plot of “A Jury of Her Peers” at book club, but only if it is relevant to the discussion at hand (a discussion I have forgotten, and an author I failed to look up. Flannery O’Connor? Tom and I thought so but I totally forgot to Google the name. Will Google later, before I lose this train of thought.) Reading five short stories under the guise of “novel” wasn’t what I wanted to do. I don’t even feel betrayed by the marketing team of the publishing company… every single thing they said about the book on the jacket was true. I don’t know how I thought the tales would be combined to make a more traditional novel, but they didn’t play as I was expecting them too. But like I said, it’s definitely four stars. (And no, I’m not holding back on the fifth star for not being what I wanted.) I was also very happy that it ended on what for me I interpreted as a note of hope.

I will say this: The part where the girl at the end describes being rounded up onto asphalt fields and herded away on airplanes was as chilling as the author intended. I do want to learn more about the (forced?) settlement of some African people in the newly formed nation of Israel, if that’s what was going on. I am embarrassed to say that I wasn’t entirely clear at that point, and that I was too rushed cramming my book club book after to fully process the history and the meanings that I overlooked.

(Was it Kate Chopin? I don’t think so. OK. Checking now. Susan Glaspell. Not Flannery O’Connor. It was an honest mistake.)

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