Set in the days leading up to the end of World War II, a rural German family goes about its business of eking out an existence and tending to their own private pain. The family patriarch grows ever more nationalistic and enthralled by Nazism, while his older son Max returns from the front with post-traumatic stress disorder and his younger closeted gay son George endures a term in Hitler Youth.
The Vanishing Sky reveals the German home front as I’ve never seen it in fiction, a small town where nobody asks questions or unburdens herself, so that neighbors who’ve known one another all their lives are strangers ... Binding tells her story patiently, like an artist placing tiny pieces into a mosaic; this literary novel isn’t one to race through. But I find it gripping, powerful, and a brave narrative, unsparing in its honesty.
L. Annette Binder piercingly describes the mood of the inhabitants of the small Bavarian city of Wurzburg, just weeks before World War II ended ... The Vanishing Sky paints a haunting portrait of a nation slowly collapsing. The story is gripping, and the characters are fully realized, flawed individuals ... by making the fictional setting so generic, Binder, a prize-winning short story writer, hoped to explain how her father was able to participate in such mass cruelty. Under similar authoritarian control, how many readers of any nationality would have had the courage to resist? Yet there’s something troubling about the idea of ignoring the extreme evil of the Third Reich. If this novel aims for universality, then it’s important also to remember that many 'ordinary' German adults—not just impressionable teenagers, not just cowed victims—avidly cheered Hitler and beat up their Jewish neighbors, long before Nazi control was firmly in place. Indeed, they voted for him in 1932 when Germany was still a democracy.
At a moment when American readers uneasily watch our own leaders stoke ethnic and religious tensions—often to tragic ends—in a way that we have not quite seen before in our lifetimes, the Hubers’ story feels particularly revelatory. Binder is a deft writer with a gift for choosing vocabulary that elevates the observations of normal people into carefully rendered art ... The Vanishing Sky tells a tragic story, but it also serves as a meditation on tragedy and the everyday cruelty by which tragedy is so often begotten ... Some of the book’s most poignant insights into the human capacity for evil come through the scarce passages narrated from Josef’s perspective, which reveal how his childlike desire for respect and belonging contribute to the confused old schoolmaster’s embrace of Nazi ideology—to the great detriment of his family. Despite its many strengths, The Vanishing Sky ends on a relatively weak note ... Nevertheless, The Vanishing Sky is a moving and worthwhile read, albeit not a happy one. The novel is artfully written, and Binder’s insights into extreme nationalism make it particularly relevant today.