Book Reviews

Two Lives by Vikram Seth

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List Price: £12.99


Paperback: 512 Pages.

Published: 06 July 2006 by Abacus

Edition: New Ed

ISBN: 0349117985

EAN: 9780349117980

TWO LIVES tells the remarkable story of Seth's great uncle and aunt. His great uncle Shanti left India for medical school in Berlin in the 1930s and lodged with a German Jewish family. In the household was a daughter, Henny, who urged her mother 'not to take the blackie'. But a friendship developed and each managed to leave Germany and found their way to Britain as the Nazis rose to power. Shanti joined the army and lost his right arm at the battle of Monte Cassino, while Henny (whose family were to die in the camps) made a life for herself in her adopted country. After the war they married and lived the emigre life in north London where Shanti, despite the loss of his arm, became a much-loved dentist. During his own adolescence in England, Vikram Seth lived with Shanti and Henny and came to know and love them deeply. His is the third life in this story of TWO LIVES. This is also a book about history, encompassing as it does many of the most significant themes and events in the 20th century, whose currents are reflected in the lives of Shanti, Henny and their family: from the Raj and the Indian freedom movement to the Third Reich, the Holocaust and British postwar society.


5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars  by Anne

Exceptional lives

I found this an absolutely compelling read about the author's uncle and his wife.

Shanti came from India to Germany to train as a dentist where he met Henny, a young Jewish woman. Eventually Shanti went on to London to work and eventually Henny escaped from Germany too and the pair married and made a life together in Britain. The author stayed with them when he studied in Britain and so he tells their historical stories as well as explaining how they were when he knew them. The other part of the story is Shanti's family stories and how this affected him in Britain and Henny's family and friends and what happened to them during the war in Germany. The author does flit around from one aspect of the book to another but I never felt confused.

The story is compelling and the author tells it with real affection for his relatives. He does not, however, hide their faults or even his own so the people about whom he is writing feel very real. I found Henny's life as a German refugee and Jew during the 1930s and afterwards fascinating especially her experiences in finding out what had happened to her family and friends as well as having to deal with people whose war time activities were dubious. I was surprised to find that Shanti's story and his struggles to succeed as a foreign dentist especially after he lost an arm in the war was also as gripping. The parts where the author makes an appearance were less satisfying but they did frame the story well and show what had happened in the long run.

I do enjoy a family memoir and this is an exceptional one told with real story telling skill.

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