1955 in New York City: the city of instant coffee, bagels at Katz's Deli, ultra-modern TVs. But in the Perlman's walk-up in Chelsea, the past is as close as the present. Rachel came to Manhattan in a wave of displaced Jews who managed to survive the horrors of war. Her Uncle Fritz fleeing with her, Rachel hoped to find freedom from her pain in New York and in the arms of her new American husband, Aaron. But this child of Berlin and daughter of an artist cannot seem to outrun her guilt in the role of American housewife, not until she can shed the ghosts of her past. And when Uncle Fritz discovers, in a dreary midtown pawn shop, the most shocking portrait that her mother had ever painted, Rachel's memories begin to terrorize her.
Gillham tackles challenging subject matter and treats it with dignity, giving his characters nuance and depth. He successfully portrays Rachel’s interior life as she responds to her memories, experiences and current circumstances. He is at pains here to paint an accurate picture of the lives his characters might have lived, though sometimes, especially when it comes to the use of language, he overreaches a bit ... Fiction about the Holocaust needs to tread very carefully, especially when it’s written by authors who have an outsider's interest or perspective. Gillham almost lets his characters become caricatures a few times but catches himself. There is some melodrama here, along with a couple of almost too-extraordinary turns in the plot. Overall, though, Shadows of Berling is a rich and compelling exploration of survival, guilt, family, artistic expression and healing.