Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Book Review: The Ventriloquists

The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A stunning true story of ordinary people, in Nazi occupied Belgium, fighting back with printed words. As a Communications major in college (many years ago) I found The Ventriloquists to be very intriguing; both the truth and fiction. E.R. Ramzipoor does a wonderful job of breaking down what is true and what is not in her author's note for those whom feel that is important to identify. Additionally the literary style of The Ventriloquists is gorgeous and leads to quotes like:
"The typewriters has gone to sleep for the evening, taking their needful melodies to bed with them. Aubrion hated the silence. Silence reminded him of everything that was frightening in the world: night and death and audiences that didn’t applaud."

Historical Reference
I'm very disappointed with myself (and my education) that I did not know the story of Le Soir or Faux Soir. Thus, I'm very thankful to Ramzipoor that she has brought this intriguing, but also important story to light. Many people today may not realize the resources it took pre-Internet to get a propaganda message out. Between paper, ink, press time, press labour and distribution it was no small feat to print and distribute a daily newspaper. Ramzipoor does a wonderful job of covering off every one of these key pieces prior to Le Soir hitting the streets for public consumption. And while she takes 544 pages to tell the story, I'm not sure I would want a single sentence cut as it all feels so critical to the ending and final piece that was printed and distributed in Belgium.
There are additional little tidbits of information in The Ventriloquists that could be novels all their own. My personal favourite true 'side' story I learned is this one:
"Germans later began shipping little fabric Stars of David to every town in Belgium; when the men and women of the post learned of Stars’ purpose, they took the Stars home and burned them."

I love reading books set in France. Not only for the fact that France always feels like a truly romantic place (I've not been there yet); but also because they speak my favourite language, French. As a born and raised Western Canadian it's a little unusual that I am fluent in both English and French. 99% of French speaking Canadians (francophone) are in Quebec (east) and on the East Coast. Let me clarify that, English is my first language; French is the language I love but am only (at best) proficient in. For me there is something about books where they combine the French phrases that many know (without translation) and English that just makes my heart soar. The mix in The Ventriloquists felt perfect to me. It might be a little bit too much French, that goes untranslated, for some; but in that case I'd encourage readers to 'Google It' for a translation and appreciate the flow and style of the French language (but I'm biased).

Whether it's the characters that Ramzipoor researched and were real, or people she had to assume existed, each of our POVs and characters feel like real people. You might think that it's easier to narrate from the POV of a person that actually existed, than a fictional one. I have found that is not always the case for many writers. I could not have told you the difference between the characters based on historical record and those that Ramzipoor inserted or assumed into the story. They all feel equally fleshed out. I know many reviewers have criticized the plethora of characters in this story but the reality is that it would take a lot of people to pull off this feat.
I would remiss not to point out my three favourite characters: a boy of about 13 who is the primary POV, a lesbian whom seduces another (high powered) lady, and the star of the story our middle aged male and lead conspirator (real person) Aubrion. However even the side characters are so impeccably done that I can't leave them all out: a gay man who forges letters like no other (and is trapped into working for the Germans to stay alive), the German turncoat, or the man that donates his printing press (at great risk) to produce the final product are all beautifully done. Many of the lovely quotes in the story come from difference characters, including this gem I love:
"An ellipsis is a poor substitute for a period, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise..."

I've been known to hate a lot of endings. I often wonder if I've liked the ending to even 30% of the books I've read in my life. I dunno what it is but endings make or break stories for me. The Ventriloquist does not let down. From the true events that happen at the climax of the story, to the fictional outcomes for many of our characters; Ramzipoor does a wonderful job of wrapping up the pieces of the story for our many intriguing people in ways that feel balanced (given it's war time and they are all conspirators) and also surprisingly satisfying. A few may (of course) bring you to tears; but there really is no avoiding that when the Nazi's are involved.
"So it was beautiful and you burned it. All of Nazi history written in a single sentence."

If you have any interest in a small rebellious group, printing of newspapers, propaganda creation and distribution, WWII in Belgium, resilient people or just WWII in general this is a wonderful book to add to your repertoire. It will require some time to read because of it's dense language and length; but I believe the pay-off is well worth the effort. For me, The Ventriloquists easily deserves to be alongside The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and other recently told WWII literary feats, that bring to light some of the billions of stories of those who survived a time most of us can't even begin to relate to. Each one of these amazing stories of resilience and hope help me to remember that it can always get worse; and that if others survived in the past than I should certainly be able to survive today's world.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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1 comment:

Leonore Winterer said...

I love how along side those big, world altering events (like WWII), there are so many smaller, less heard, but non the less important stories, about regular people that really lived and breathed and made a difference!