In the case of Julia Ain-Krupa’s upcoming The Upright Heart, I find myself once again in the situation where what I was expecting based on the description provided and what I actually got were two very different things. Yet, when I went back to the description it actually is very close to the story being told in the novel—it just didn’t prepare me at all for the way that story was going to be presented. Luckily, in this case the surprising difference between expectation and reality worked in the novel’s favor, and I can’t honestly think of a much better way that the book’s description could prepare the reader for the way the narrative unfolds.
In the years following World War II, the people of Poland—both living and dead—struggle to make peace with all that transpired. Wolf married and moved to America before the war while the rest of his family were killed in the war; he returns to his hometown to see what is left and to say the prayers for the dead in the hope he and they may rest easier. On another plane, his first love Olga—a Catholic who helped hide his family as long as she could—clings to him when he reappears; she is unable to move on but isn’t sure why. A young woman, Anna, sees and feels the spirits of the dead around her, uncertain whether the people she sees are among the living or the dead; she is also haunted by memories of her former coworker, a woman who concealed her Jewish identity when they both worked as maids in the household of the governor general’s subordinate. Wiktor and his family survived the war but an on-the-job accident shortly after its end leaves Wiktor’s family mourning his loss while his spirit seeks to assist the spirits of others who have been having trouble moving on.
The most surprising—and difficult thing—to adjust to in this novel is the form the narrative takes. It switches between first and third person frequently but what proves most disorienting is that these narrative switches come with no indication as to whose perspective it’s jumped into. The reader must use only the clues and cues in the text to discern who it is that’s speaking and which of the interwoven tales is being told at the moment. The switches between them are also lacking a predictable pattern. Ordinarily, this sort of chaotic presentation might undermine the story being told as it can distract the reader from the underlying plots and characters, but in this case I think it works. The flow of the writing keeps the reader moving along at a steady pace and helps to focus the emotional thrust of the story, which is far more important than keeping careful track of how and where all of the plot points and narratives interact with one another.
The relationship between the living and the dead as its presented in the book is a thoroughly interesting one. With living characters that can occasionally see the dead and dead characters that do not understand they are dead, Ain-Krupa explores the boundaries of existence in innovative—and heartbreaking—ways. It might not be the most straight-forward narrative, jumping backwards and forward in time as frequently as it shifts narrative perspective, but it puts the reader in the same position as the characters in many ways, not the least of which is trying to make sense of the senseless acts of violence and tragedy that World War II encompassed.
The Upright Heart will be available for purchase September 13, 2016.