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The Mercy Room    by Gilles Rozier order for
Mercy Room
by Gilles Rozier
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The story of The Mercy Room is told by a German language teacher in occupied France, someone who has no liking for the country's conquerors, but who does have a lifelong passion for German literature, frequent references to which are incorporated into the novel. The narrator remains mysterious (and nameless) throughout, and in particular the reader never discovers whether this person is male or female. Either works in the story, an ambiguity I occasionally found irritating.

The teacher's French family have had a mixed involvement with the conquerors, the younger sister Anne being an SS man's mistress, while the father is a prisoner of war in Germany. The narrator has set up a hidden reading room at the back of the wine cellar, a private place to read books banned by the Nazis, by authors like Heine, Werfel and Heinrich Mann. He or she is married to Jude, an oddly unconsummated relationship - they have nothing in common as Jude doesn't read books. One day, this person is summoned by the Gestapo to their headquarters, and asked to work there a few hours a week, translating and interpreting. Whole families pass by, on their way to torture and slaughter. The interpreter does nothing, though he or she feels uneasy seeing Madame Bloch the draper, source of past kindnesses, vanish there.

One day, a (Jewish) ex-soldier is part of a group to be processed, a handsome young man the narrator knew (and felt an attraction for) when he brought translation work during the phony war. The interpreter simply walks out with Herman, and hides him in the tiny cellar room. They share their love of literature, and later more. And the teacher risks a great deal to obtain Herman's Yiddish volume of Heine, left in his old rooms. Throughout, the story is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. Is it a heterosexual or homosexual relationship? Is the passion mutual or does Herman feel the need to placate his savior? Why does Jude commit suicide? What drives the narrator to eventually attack the SS man?

The teacher muses about the wartime experience, 'I floated about ... a branch eaten away by rot, a piece of wood abandoned to the river. I had never known love before; I found love in the middle of the war.' The Mercy Room, soaked in symbolism and dealing with the effects of ongoing shame and the compromise of principle, makes an intriguing puzzle. It's a novel that can carry many interpretations and begs all kinds of questions, making it perfect for reading group discussion.

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