The Song of the Stork deals with a time and a place of horrific suffering, death and destruction - the woodlands and villages around Vilnius during World War II - but it manages to portray a sense of calm, introspection and incredible inner strength that is strangely uplifting.
The main character is a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl called Yael, who finds herself in a desperate struggle for survival against the cold as well as the Nazis. I spent the first part of the novel trying to work out where exactly the story was based - Poland? Russia? Lithuania? - but I soon realised that it was largely unimportant, partly because the terrible story was being played out across large parts of Europe and, secondly, because borders, allegiances and country names were being frequently modified in these unsettled times so they almost lost their meaning anyway.
We know little of Yael's background and her past, but we are all too familiar with the stories of Jewish persecution and genocide and can easily fill in the blanks to imagine what happened to her parents and, indeed, the rest of her community. The only thing that matters is the present situation that Yael finds herself in and how to survive. Despite his wariness and reluctance due to fear of reprisals, Yael finds an ally in the village outcast, a reclusive mute called Aleksei. In spite of the turbulent historical setting, the story follows the classic path of boy meets girl and love blossoms. The couple manage to build a painfully fragile but magnificent bubble of harmony, peace and contentment - Yael is a master of mindfulness, wholeheartedly appreciating every single one of life's remaining pleasures, such as watching the snowflakes fall, taking a hot bath, reading a few lines of poetry or watching the storks visiting. It is extremely poignant to watch their burgeoning romance and happiness, knowing that it is highly unlikely that there will be a happy ending and that external forces will inevitably tear them apart.
Sure enough, their temporary idyll is soon shattered and Yael finds herself on the run again, back in the forests where she is taken in by a group of partisans, carrying on the fight against the Nazis. Her absolute priority is survival, but not far behind is her primal desire to reconnect with her lost love Aleksei and her brother, Josef.
The author skims around the edges of the horrific suffering - we see the persecution and rejection of the Jews and there are occasional shots fired and bodies falling by the wayside, but there are no scenes of graphic violence or cruelty. The prose is sparse and understated and it reminded me at times of The Secret Diary of Anne Frank, which hints at the barbaric events going on in the world without ever displaying them in all their technicolour horror. The writing is hauntingly beautiful and poetic, focusing on hope for the future and delight in the resistance of humanity against all odds, with terror, unspeakable cruelty and hopelessness constantly gnawing away at the edges, like wolves baying for blood and trying to find a way in.
Disclosure : I received the book in order to write an honest review.