By Ellen Ullman
Ullman’s unique exploration of inheritance and the meaning of self, set in the early 1970s and in Germany before, during, and immediately after WWII, as well as in Israel, works beautifully on several levels.
It’s a compelling thriller about an intelligent, young woman, a lesbian in a time when lesbians were defining the meaning of lesbianism, a successful economic analyst, disconnected from her adoptive family, especially from her mother, in therapy for a while at the opening, who sets out on a journey to find her birth mother, and through her, discover herself.
It’s an intriguing exploration of the effect of pathologies on the behavior of people, with some imposed on characters by birth and circumstances, as in the woman, the psychologist, and the birth mother, and some inherent, as in the voyeuristic and compulsive professor.
Too, it’s often a shocking delving into the truly sinister and painful Nazi Aryan agenda, and the holocaust and its aftermath, especially the placement of Jewish orphans, even for those who might believe themselves well acquainted with this brutal chapter in world history.
It’s also a bit wicked in its construct, that of an expelled professor with obvious psychological problems who eavesdrops on and then intrudes surreptitiously into a private doctor-patient relationship, corralling us readers as his meddling cohorts, with us hoping he doesn’t expose himself (a pun, I suppose, as you’ll see) before the woman completes her quest.
Finally, unlike much fiction these days, including stuff billed as literary, the author has taken great effort to use words in such a way as to create a rhythmic syntax that enhances the gripping and dark tale.
And, if you should require yet another reason to take a look at BY BLOOD, you’ll discover a genuinely erotic encounter between the woman and someone she’s drawn to while on Christmas holiday.
Writing sex presents most writers with challenges they can’t seem to surmount. Ullman proves herself an exception. And she’s sly, as well, taking a bead on our libidos early on, having the professor’s mind explode with, “Lesbian sex! I experienced a moment of extreme titillation …”
Highly recommended for all these reasons. w/c