The Ghost Keeper

Written by Natalie Morrill
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

You would think that a story about taking care of the dead would be creepy, but nothing could be further from the truth in this dazzling gem of a novel.

In the years leading up to World War II, Josef Tobak’s grandmother told him a fable about a fish buried in a Jewish cemetery in his home country of Austria. From that point on, he takes it upon himself to honor and remember the dead by becoming the unofficial caretaker of the Jewish cemetery. As the book progresses and Austria is annexed to Germany, the readers follow Josef’s journey as he and his wife and family are separated during the war, and they learn about his complicated friendship with a boyhood companion who later joined the Nazi party. Later, Josef must face uncomfortable truths about his friend, even as he helps Josef survive the war.

The author employs an unusual literary technique throughout the book by telling Josef’s story in both the third person and the first person, as it represented the man he was and the man he is. Rather than distract from the narrative, this only serves to enhance it as the reader gets to know the many facets of Josef. In fact, Josef is one of the most noteworthy characters I’ve come across in modern literature.

This book is captivating from start to finish. It asks the questions: How do we wish to be remembered? How does one maintain a sense of normalcy when nothing will ever be the same again? What choices might one make under unprecedented, unfathomable circumstances?

I cannot recommend this book enough for its poignant, lyrical prose, as well as its insightful and profound observations about the human condition, life and death, love and hope, survival, and forgiveness.