The intent, the story, the approach, the feeling of The Book of Aaron all make sense to me, but Jim Shepard’s execution just lets it down. There is so much promise and possibility – Aron is a peculiar young boy narrating the German onslaught pushing him from the Polish countryside to the Warsaw ghettos and beyond – and the idea of narrating this kind of tale from an intimate, first person perspective with both facts and feelings is an alluring one. Unfortunately it is weighed down by the boy himself, who could give so much.
The idea, the story, and the character for The Book of Aron all come from verifiable historical documentation. Shepard explains in his afterword:
“My main object here, to quote Marguerite Yourcenar in her Bibliographical Note to her Memoirs of Hadrian, has been ‘to approach inner reality, if possible, through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford,’ and so this novel could not have existed, or would have existed in a much diminished form, without critically important contributions from…sources”
So Shepard has created a very factual fictionalised account of one of the millions of stories from World War II. It feels like very little artistic license or judgement is utilised by the author: he is slavishly reliant on verifiable facts which is, in post-modern consideration, itself problematic. But as it is Aron feels not fully realised. He is a shell of a character that Shepard has sketched from the available information, and because there is a limit to what we know about Aron, what we do know is heavily relied on, repeated to exhaustion. He is odd, selfish, violent, different. Over and over and over.
I never really bonded with this book. I had heard so much about Shepard as a writer, and the story is an essential one, but Aron is just so distancing as a narrator. No matter how hard I tried, his peculiarity, his simple cruelty, his misguided selfishness just kept me away. I suppose this is a very real character, so flawed and human, but it did not feel like there was one opportunity to be allowed in as a reader. The book is a slog, hard going, and very worthy. That is fine, there are reasons to keep trying, but it can be exhausting and it ultimately diminishes the book to make a reader work this hard.
However, the style of narration is appropriate and well-tuned to our problematic lead. It is pitched at the right level of Aron, growing with him throughout the years. The war has stilted Aron and his education, so sometimes his observations feel overly saccharin or simplistic or surface.
“The Ukrainians and the yellow police kicked and pushed everyone they could into the open doorways. The Ukrainians used their rifle butts as well. Arms and hands stretched out the little window through the barbed wire. When it looked like there was no more room in a car a German walked over with his pistol and fired into the crowd and everyone near who was shot fell backwards and another six or seven people were shoved into the space. The train was filled and the doors banged shut and the Jews inside screamed until it left. Dust hung in the air from where the ramps had been kicked down.”
Aron is a witness at a point in time, and Shepard has made a commendable effort to collate, gather, create and fictionalise this experience. It is a story worth capturing, a moment worth remembering so as a society we never forget it, but as a piece of fiction it struggles with its own master.