Just when you think every possible angle of the Holocaust has been explored in literature, ad infinitum, along comes “The Color of Light” (Stony Creek Press) by Helen Maryles Shankman, a tale of art school, the Holocaust, and yes—vampires.
It’s 1992. At The American Academy of Classical Art, orthodox Jewish student Tessa Moss is vulnerable and innocent against the throb of New York City. The school’s founder, Raphael Sinclair, or “Rafe”, is a vampire. His life (or shall we say undeath) spans many decades. When he notices one of Tessa’s sketches, with the name “Wizotsky” written on a lady’s suitcase in the picture, he is reminded of a long lost love who perished in the Holocaust. From here, the story spirals into an unlikely marriage of paranormal romance and Holocaust literature.
One of Shankman’s strengths is her world building, not an easy task when mingling three very different subjects. Yet she does it with a dexterity that creates a gray area in which they can coexist organically. This, in turn, is how the novel functions, orienting itself around these blurred lines that define the universe Shankman has formed, a weaving of fact with fiction, past with present. With the intertwining of vampire and Holocaust, the author asks us to alter the expectations we typically have when reading a paranormal romance. We are placed in the very heart of a history we’ve memorialized, and we are held there, alongside vampires. And, shockingly, these vampires don’t trivialize the Holocaust experience the author depicts.
Upon entering the world of Tessa’s family in Poland on the eve of World War II, the novel shifts from an alternating point of view, to first person, told by Rafe. It begins with his life as a young art student and it’s as if the reader is being led by a docent through an art museum, told where to focus, reminded not to stray from the group.
For those of us used to reading Holocaust literature sans vampires, all that is paranormal in the clearly depicted historical section is forgiven, because of, I believe, the author’s ability to constantly drip-feed and thus distract the reader with little secrets and unanswered questions throughout.
One of the author’s most profound sweeps of the pen is the way she underscores the aftermath of the Holocaust. Generations after, descendants of victims and survivors are still feeling the effects. We are still suffering.
“The terrible things that happen to us,” Tessa said slowly. “What we do with them…I think that’s what makes us artists.”
The final portion of the book maintains the same twist of events and revelations previous sections did. It’s this repeated upending of plot points and things continuously being turned over in the most unexpected of ways, that allows the novel to live and expand within your mind for the entire duration and beyond. Shankman’s prose is intelligent and affecting. She gives the reader so much to focus on across a large span of time, that the various elements can feel almost disparate, like individual parts of a sketch. But in the end, the story itself is a work of art, and what we come away with is a complete portrait, so haunting, we can scarcely pull our eyes away.
Leah Damski holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and has recently completed a novel and short story collection. Follow her on twitter @leahdamski.