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Review: Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens
Overlook, 2019. 304 pp. $26

Johannes Betzler might be like most Viennese boys of the late 1930s. He joins the Hitler Youth, in which he takes great pride, and swallows the Nazi message whole, much to his parents’ dismay. When the war comes, it’s his turn to be dismayed, for he figures out that they’re hiding a young Jewish woman, Elsa, behind a false wall upstairs. Outraged at first, he barely contains himself until, after being disfigured by a bomb during an enemy air raid, he becomes interested in Elsa and, later, consumed by her. When his parents disappear, and his grandmother, who lives in the house, becomes demented, he must care for Elsa’s needs by himself. And Johannes’s obsession grows so great that as the war’s end nears — he expects a Nazi victory — he wonders how to keep her, or what their relationship will be like.

From this simple, bizarre premise comes a bold novel of great fierceness, insight, and emotional savagery. I admire Leunens’s refusal to spare anyone or anything, even as, while reading, I sometimes had to put the book down and pace around the room. But if you stick with Caging Skies, this is what you’ll get. With a sweep reminiscent of A Gentleman in Moscow (and therefore Tolstoy), but decidedly without the humor, kindness, or generosity — this is the Holocaust — Leunens creates a microcosm of Hitlerian thought inside Johannes’s head. The truism about scratching a bully and finding beneath an ineffectual, strutting egotist secretly scared of his inadequacy emerges front and center.

Where other novelists (or historians) tell you that the Nazi creed attracted certain personalities, Leunens shows you why and how. It’s absolutely remarkable how she exposes Johannes as a pitiful, self-satisfying beast, casting the world in his own image, twisting all he sees to fit his vision of himself as victim. This is pure narcissism, but it’s more than that — it’s the far-right mindset, us-versus-them culture, and ultranationalism; that the portrayal seems so vivid and relevant is frightening in itself.

Throughout, Leunens’s prose drives relentlessly forward, as with this passage about Johannes’s training with the Hitler Youth:

In one exercise we were to kill a pen of ducks by twisting their necks with our bare hands. It was stressful because once we freed the latch they came to us in trust and quacked as if we could understand exactly what it was they wanted. One of the ducks was followed by a dozen ducklings and they had to be killed too. It was as if they were asking us to kill our own childhood, somehow. If a boy cried after the deed was done he was so thoroughly mocked that no one wanted to be in his shoes. He ate fowl like everybody else and would enjoy the duck once it was on his plate after others had worked to prepare it, wouldn’t he? He was then nothing but a whimpering hypocrite, a good for nothing!

If I may be clinical for a moment about this chilling scene, notice how the author uses the entire setup as a metaphor, which Johannes literally expresses as killing his own childhood. I like how Leunens employs this technique, sparingly, but to excellent effect, letting the action create the image and then lightly directing the brushstroke — or not.

A central theme of Caging Skies has to do with truth, lies, and being able to tell the difference. Johannes loses his way in that maze right off, though he thinks he doesn’t, and he’s never sure how much anyone knows about him, his thoughts, or secrets that may or may not belong to him alone. Gradually, he comes to sense that the ground may give way any moment, which is how his feelings about Elsa change from revulsion to desire, and more.

But that’s where the novel falters, I think. Their relationship raises several questions, and if Leunens has answered them the way I infer she has, I have my doubts. Is she trying to say that the Jews’ murderers actually love them? Or is it the lust of possession, in which complete power over someone, enough to allow you to dispose of them, makes you feel in love with yourself? I’d sooner believe the second, but in Johannes’s case, he appears to go further — to the extent that he can love anyone.

In reverse, the relationship makes even less sense. To an extent, I understand identifying with the aggressor, but some of what happens tests credulity. And if Leunens is trying to have Elsa stand in for all Jews, that representation feels grotesque and unearned.

But there’s no denying that Caging Skies is an extraordinary novel, and that its author has ranged widely within a contained physical space to tell a penetrating story.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.