Book Review of Leah Kaminsky’s The Hollow Bones.

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Reviewed by Angela Wauchop

“[…] Herta’s eyes were open to an army of haters spinning their sticky threads among the populace. Every day, the newspapers were filled with tales of the ranks of pale, steadfast citizens performing their civic duty, proudly denouncing neighbours and friends. Stormtroopers ensured their shoes were polished before kicking Jewish shopkeepers to the ground.”

The Hollow Bones is the latest novel of award-winning Australian author Leah Kaminsky. Although based on true events and real people, Kaminsky’s new creation is a meticulous work of fiction, deceptively light at times. Yet the author managed to instil in me, the reader, a sense of foreboding. Darkness is always lingering in the background of this well-researched, and beautifully descriptive narrative.

Most of the story is set between 1936 and the early stages of the First World War in 1939, in Berlin and Tibet. Kaminsky isimaginativein her informed portrayal of the story of Ernst Schäfer, the distinguished German explorer and ornithologist and his sweetheart, Herta Völz. Herta is a talented flautist who abandons her aspirations as a musician in order to attend ‘Brideschool’ and marry Ernst. Herta must learn to become a suitably loyal and appropriately-behaved wife worthy of any of Hitler’s esteemed SS (Schutzstaffel) officers.

The sinister undertones of The Hollow Bones made me instantly consider the theme of ‘what we leave behind’ – the people and the parts of ourselves that define us. Imagine having to deny the existence of your sister because she is disabled, considered a burden, a ‘life unworthy of life’. Or imagine you are a mother who must pretend your baby died at birth because she was born deaf and crippled, and because people with disabilities have lately been known to ‘disappear’ from your community.

But the most unique aspect of Kaminsky’s book is not the fractured nature of the dates of events in the chapters. These are effectively arranged to tantalise and delicately decode the unfolding story. No, what captured my imagination the most is that the story occasionally shifts to the perspective of one of Ernst’s museum-bound taxidermy specimens. Wait! Hear me out! The stuffed panda cub specimen eloquently and heartbreakingly recounts a short conversation it had with a fellow specimen – a Tasmanian Tiger – or thylacine to be precise:

‘I come from a Wild called Tasmania. I have heard that my clan are gone from there forever,’ she said, and never spoke again.

Kaminsky successfully executes vivid descriptions and evocative anecdotes of times and places of long ago. From the poetic portrayal of nature’s beauty to the observation of the danger of reducing life to ‘compartments, sections, [and] categories’, The Hollow Bones explores how people change, and how we change along with people.

 ‘[…] she would never be able to reconcile with her childhood image of him. How could a man who held such a deep reverence for nature and all its gifts at the same time be its destroyer?’