It’s taken me a little while to get around to Ayelet Waldman’s novel, despite the fact that it comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Michael Ondaatje and Joyce Carol Oates – where does she find the time to read other people’s books given her own astonishingly prolific output. Once I’d picked it up I wondered why it had taken me so long. In it Waldman traces the ownership of a beautifully enamelled peacock pendant, part of the looted treasure packed into the Hungarian Gold Train, using its history to explore the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, attempts to recompense the treasure’s heirs and early twentieth century Hungarian feminism. Something of a broad canvas, then, but it works well
Love and Treasure opens with Jack Wiseman’s granddaughter, Natalie, caring for him in his last days. Jack entrusts her with a task, giving her the pendant he stole as a young soldier in Budapest and asking her to return it to those who have more right it. The rest of the novel is split into three parts, beginning with Jack’s custodianship of the treasure in 1945. Jack falls badly for Ilona, a camp survivor who stays in Budapest in the frail hope of finding her sister. He woos her with food but she’s unlike the other Chocolate Girls who support their families by selling American soldiers’ gifts on the black market. Self contained but generous to her fellow refugees, she’s driven by the hope of finding the last member of her family alive. The pace quickens in the second section, following Natalie to Budapest where she has arranged to meet Amitai whose family firm traces the ownership of looted Jewish artefacts as far back as they can, a delicate and lengthy business. Amitai sees a link between the pendant and the picture he has in his sights: a portrait of a naked young woman with the head of a peacock. Their search takes them to Israel, and another love story begins. The third section takes us back to the origins of the pendant’s ownership in a psychoanalyst’s case study of a wealthy young woman, a suffragette passionate about her hopes for a career as a doctor who finds herself out of her depth in a daring bid to publicise the cause.
Waldman uses these three interconnected narratives to explore a multitude of themes. In the first Jack is accustomed to the casual anti-Semitism of the American army but angered by the plundering of Nazi gold by his superiors. Conflicted when asked to play a part in the new movement to establish a Jewish state, he’s disgusted by some activists’ assertions of survivors’ inferiority, that what happened in Poland would never have happened in Palestine. In the second, Waldman takes a swipe at Holocaust tourism through Dror Tamid – a tour leader who takes the moral high ground over Amitai’s work, branding him a parasite – while exploring Amitai’s troubled realtionship with Israel. In the third she looks at Hungarian feminist history while poking gentle fun at Dr Zobel, Nina’s psychoanalyst who tries to prod her into understanding the implications of her recurring trains and tunnels dream while she interprets it as her need to escape her stultifying background in which marriages are arranged for economic convenience. These shifting narratives mesh together very well, although the first section worked best for me – the love story of the second felt a little strained. It’s an absorbing, ambitious novel which manages to combine two love stories with the pace of a thriller while throwing light on an aspect of the Holocaust unusual in fiction.