Publication Date: March 5, 2020
At the behest of his agent, renowned author Yoel Blum reluctantly agrees to visit his birthplace of Amsterdam to meet with his Dutch publisher, despite promising his late mother that he would never return to that city. While touring the Jewish Museum with his wife, Yoel stumbles upon a looping reel of photos offering a glimpse of pre-war Dutch Jewish life, and is astonished to see the youthful face of his beloved mother staring back at him, posing with her husband, Yoel’s older sister Nettie… and an infant he doesn’t recognise.
This unsettling discovery launches him into a fervent search for the truth, revealing Amsterdam’s dark wartime history and the underground networks which hid Jewish children away from danger – but at a cost. The deeper into the past Yoel digs, the better he understands his mother’s silence, and the more urgent the question that has unconsciously haunted him for a lifetime – Who am I? – becomes.
Synopsis from Goodreads.
House on Endless Waters is the slow-moving character study of an author named Yoel Blum whose entire sense of self has been shattered. What would you do if you were to walk into a museum and happen upon a photo of your deceased parents, your older sibling, and a baby, and know for a fact that the baby in the photo is not only not you, but someone you have never seen before? This is exactly what happens to Yoel Blum when he begrudgingly visits Amsterdam on a press tour for his latest novel. This moment in time nearly destroys Yoel, and sets him on a course to find out not only who he is, but who the child in the photo is.
House on Endless Waters is one of the most unique historical fiction novels that I have ever read. In the vast majority of historical fiction books the narrative moves between the past and the present in a defined manner. It is typical for one chapter to focus on the past, and for the next chapter to focus on the present. It is also not uncommon for a book to be divided into different sections based on the period in which the narrative takes place. House on Endless Waters tears down the barrier between the past and the present day, and we are left with a narrative that travels between periods in an unpredictable manner. While this could be a bit confusing at times, especially towards the beginning of the book, it does start to make sense as you get to know the characters.
Although this intermittent transition between past and present might sound a bit odd, it does actually make sense within the context of the narrative. I do not want to give too much away, but the thing about this book that I found most unique is the fact that the events of the past are not necessarily factual. And here is what truly blew me away about this novel: the narrative that is based in the past was actually written by Yoel as he researches his newest novel, which is based on his personal and familial history. The events are based on fact to an extent, but the details are down to Yoel’s extensive imagination. The process of writing this history helps present-day Yoel process the information that he has learned about himself and his family. Perhaps you are also thinking that this sounds a bit confusing, and that is because it slightly is. I was certainly baffled by the first few chapters where this change between past and present occurs, but I did get used to it. After a while I grew to appreciate the insight that gives us into Yoel’s development throughout the story.
I really want to give House on Endless Waters a five-star rating, but there are few reasons why I deducted a star. I think this is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in a book review to date actually. The first reason is that the more confusing aspects of the narrative drew me away from the story. One of my favourite things about reading a truly excellent book is that I become fully immersed in the story and forget about the outside world. This did not happen while I was reading House on Endless Waters. I found myself flipping back and forth to remind myself of what time period we were in, or who some of the characters were. The other reason for the four-star rating is that I found it difficult to connect to the character of Yoel. In a story that focuses on a character’s personal and emotional journey, you really need to connect with the protagonist. Although I didn’t connect with Yoel, that does necessarily mean that someone else won’t.
I hope these small criticisms do not deter you from picking up this book, because House on Endless Waters is definitely worth the read. It is a beautifully-written, insightful novel that taught me a lot about the plight of Jewish people in the Netherlands during the Second World War.
House on Endless Waters by Emuna Elon was originally published in Hebrew, and has now been translated into English. I have not been able to find any details on who translated this book, which is a shame because they did an extraordinary job.
I would like to sincerely thank NetGalley, Atlantic Books, and Emuna Elon for providing me with an advance copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.
Emuna Elon is an Israeli author, women’s rights activist, and journalist. She has written a number of books, including If You Awaken Love, Beyond My Sight, and House on Endless Waters.
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below!!
Amazon (US and UK): here
Waterstones (UK): here