Sunday, May 6, 2012

Book Review: "By Blood" by Ellen Ullman

This is a fantastically written, weighty book, different than almost anything I've ever read. Taking place in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, the country is gripped by Vietnam, the energy crisis, fear of nuclear war, and the panic generated by the Zodiac killer. The book's unnamed narrator is a disgraced college professor suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, who is trying to pull his life back together as he is being investigated for an inappropriate relationship with a student. Determined to work on a lecture series but unable to resist the obsessions of his beat-up beach house, he rents an office in downtown San Francisco. Shortly after beginning his work, he discovers that from his office he can hear the constant din of a white noise machine used by a psychotherapist in a neighboring office. While that nearly unhinges him, he suddenly realizes that one client doesn't like the noise machine to be used during her therapy sessions—so he can hear everything she says during her analysis.

While at first, the patient discusses her challenges with her work as an economic analyst, and her relationships with her family and her female lover, the crux of her problem is revealed shortly thereafter—an adopted child, she is struggling with her "real" identity and what it means for the person she is. The narrator is fascinated, and the patient becomes his new obsession. Her questions lead her to a Catholic charity that moved freshly baptized orphans out of Germany after World War II. But after discovering her mother was named "Maria G," and disappeared after surrendering her infant daughter, that is as far as the patient's search can go. Determined not to lose his weekly glimpse into this patient's life, he takes the research into his own hands, and quickly finds the patient’s mother in records from a German displaced-persons camp. But he can't let on that he’s been eavesdropping, so he creates a persona at an adoption agency the patient has contacted, sends the reply "from" there, and mails it to the client. Through the wall, he hears how "his" patient is energized by the news, which drives him to unearth more clues and become more and more invested in her case. And the patient's journey to find her birth mother takes her a great distance, both physically and psychologically.

There are many improbable things about By Blood, but Ellen Ullman's storytelling ability is so powerful, you, like the patient herself, is content at times to gloss over the threads that don't quite make sense. This is a book that wrestles with the question of what role our biological and genetic identity truly has in determining the person we become. More than nature versus nurture, it is an exploration of whether you can ever transcend the circumstances into which you are born. The story of the Jewish struggles, particularly at the end of and after World War II, and both the horrors and the victories experienced by Holocaust survivors in the displaced-persons camps, are truly powerful. This book definitely transcends its simple beginnings of a man eavesdropping on an analysis patient, and while it leaves unanswered many questions, Ullman has created a powerful, moving book unlike any other.

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