The book often has a dreamy quality of reverie or incantation, as Verzemnieks reconstructs, imagines and inhabits other people’s memories and accounts of war and flight. It requires a kind of attention that can be difficult to sustain, despite the beauty on almost every page. But this book is important. We are now experiencing another global refugee crisis. Among the Living and the Dead shows the consequences of being forced from home — how that loss is passed through the generations, as children and grandchildren struggle to build their lives ... At its most basic, war breaks connections. This exquisitely written book shows how recovery can come generations later through rebuilding connections — to people, the natural world, the past.
With narratives as dreamy and nightmarish as a living Grimms’ fairy tale, the book is a family biography of her grandmother and great-aunt. The personal story is seamlessly backed by the author’s deep research, from scholarly papers to records found in 'a file in an unmarked warehouse located at the end of an unpaved service road in Riga' ... [a] magical combination of history and personal history.
One might ask why Verzemnieks puts Ausma through the pain of it all. (Indeed, she asks this herself.) Why is knowing the story so important to her? Describing the feeling of arriving in Latvia, Verzemnieks says it was like her 'DNA is singing.' It’s a more vivid way of saying, in the current idiom, that she 'identifies.' Maybe that’s all the explanation necessary in our age of genetic and genealogical fascination. Who doesn’t want to know where they come from? And since Verzemnieks writes so well, who wouldn’t want to accompany her on her journey? ... Verzemnieks is too intelligent and humane a writer to fall into the nationalist trap, and her inquiry into the past confronts the uncomfortable aspects of Latvians’ participation in the war — their murky role as front-line soldiers in Hitler’s army and their culpability as persecutors and murderers of Latvia’s Jews — but it is impossible to read her book without drawing present-day analogies.
Verzemnieks, a former journalist, is a gracious writer, inviting the readers on her journey into the past. Yet she does so with few guideposts along the way — the book lacks a table of contents and photographs, and its chapters have no titles, just Roman numerals, stark elements of the past. This gives the memoir’s progression, as it moves between present and past, an inscrutable feel, for better or worse. However, armed with her wealth of knowledge in Latvian history and myths, and her masterful and lush observations, Verzemnieks remains an able guide, earning our undivided attention and admiration.
Verzemnieks beautifully evokes the sympathy between Livija and her young granddaughter and the subsequent acquaintance between the author, now grown and married herself, and her great-aunt, who reluctantly revealed painful episodes of her past, such as the day the Russians arrived at the end of the war, ransacked the farmhouse, and deported her sister to a labor camp in Siberia. With fluidity and nuance, the author smoothly incorporates Latvian history into her narrative as well as the quietly buried sins of the past, such as the Latvian men’s forced conscription to fight on the German side. A highly polished memoir of enormous heart.
By combining the memories of Livija and her sister, Ausma, with her own powerful impressions of Latvia, Verzemnieks has created a stirring family saga of exiles rich with compassion, loss, perseverance, myth, superstition, and courage.