This autobiographical novel tells the story of young Philippe’s childhood in post-war Paris. The sickly only child of glamorous, athletic parents, the boy worries that his own inadequate body is the source of his father’s unspoken disappointment. He senses a shadow hanging over his family. His parents never speak of the past and have altered their surname to hide their Jewish identity.
After discovering a toy dog in the attic, lonely Philippe dreams up an imaginary big brother who is everything he is not: fit, healthy, his father’s pride. The ghost brother overshadows Philippe’s existence until Philippe turns fifteen and sees a film about the Holocaust at school. When a classmate makes a vicious anti-Semitic jibe, the ‘weakling’ Philippe, overcome with a force and fury he has never known before, beats the much stronger boy bloody. Then Louise, a trusted family friend, takes him aside and tells him the truth about his family’s past, a story so harrowing that his parents are unable to face it. His imaginary brother was, in fact, a flesh and blood boy who died in Auschwitz years before Philippe’s birth, and his parents’ marriage is rooted in adultery and devastating betrayal.
No plot summary can quite do justice to this hypnotic, deeply moving novel. This deceptively slender volume can be read in an afternoon, but will haunt the reader for a lifetime. The author, a psychoanalyst, delves deep into the dark abyss of human loss and repression. His spare, luminous prose is beautifully rendered in this fine translation by Polly McLean. A gem of a novel, very highly recommended.