There is Nils, the oldest, who couldn't escape his suffocating home soon enough, and Pierre, the youngest, easily bullied and quick to lash out. And then there is Benjamin, always the family's nerve center, perpetually on the lookout for triggers and trap doors in a volatile home where the children were left to fend for themselves, competing for their father's favor and their mother's elusive love.
But as the years have unfolded, Benjamin has grown increasingly untethered from reality, frozen in place while life carries on around him. And among the brothers a dangerous current now vibrates. What really happened that summer day when everything was blown to pieces?
Mr. Schulman approaches the story’s pivotal revelation in innovative and circuitous ways. Chapters alternate between the present account of the brothers’ return to the lake house and vignettes of their last summer there and other family history. While the past-tense segments are presented chronologically, the present-tense sections unspool in reverse. This wheel-within-a-wheel mechanism creates a perpetual tension that evokes the sensibility through which Benjamin views his life ... The Survivors, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, presents us with simply written, powerfully rendered scenes ... When the near-unbearable answers to Benjamin’s questions appear, this excruciatingly effective work reveals the ironic sting in its title.
Schulman sets himself a complex technical challenge; he tells his story in two parallel narratives, one running backwards through the day of the funeral, the other moving forwards through childhood summers to the climactic point of the catastrophe, whose exact nature is only hinted at until the very end. For the most part, he makes this work ... The difficulty with telling a story in reverse is (obviously) that the reader already knows how it ends; all the narrative tension therefore rests on the events leading up to the tragedy 20 years earlier. The big reveal, when it comes, is not wholly convincing; it feels like an attempt to give the novel a thriller-esque twist and relies on a slightly implausible degree of suppressed memory. But as a study of complex sibling relationships and the layers of guilt and resentment laid down over a lifetime of burying the past, The Survivors is an accomplished debut.
Already an international bestseller, Schulman’s novel is extraordinary in its structure, covering the 24 hours leading up to the ash-scattering, with the timeline unfolding backwards in two-hour increments ... An entrancing, gripping read.