This odd little book tells the story of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish artist living in Berlin at a time when Nazism was gaining traction in Germany.
The story commences with Charlotte’s rather grave upbringing, following a series of suicides within her family. As she grows up, we witness the construction of her naïve, dreamy personality and unpredictable nature; as we read Charlotte’s state of mind, we are left concerned that Charlotte is bound for the same fate as her suicidal relatives. Indeed, when she falls in love for the first time, her passion for a man who acts aloof and uncaring reveals an obsessive side of this young girl.
Charlotte soon discovers an outlet for her wild emotions in art and attends a local art college. However, as the escalating Nazi influence begins to exclude her from all aspects of life, she is forced to escape to France. Without giving too much away, Charlotte encounters – though thankfully overcomes – a great many obstacles throughout her life, yet still eventually finds love again before the Nazis re-enter her life.
Based on a true story, the author, David Foenkinos, appears to be obsessed with the life of Charlotte Salomon. Foenkinos regularly enters the text himself, recounting the many months he spent accumulating clues to her life, in order to explain how he wrote about certain events in such detail. Throughout the book, Foenkinos’ fascination with Salomon is overwhelming as he explains a certain connection he feels to this girl who lived so many years ago, in circumstances so different to his own. However, after finishing the book I began to research Charlotte’s art and began to understand; her busy paintings – some colourful, others darker – offer some insight into the confusion and frustration present in this young girl – an individual struggling with her own identity in a turbulent Europe.
Opening this book, one could easily mistake it for a book of poems; the format of each page looks like poetry, each verse consisting of a series of one-line sentences. This makes the book a very quick and easy read; indeed, it is sometimes very elegant in its simplicity. However, there is no rhyme linking each sentence and, often, it lacks a necessary rhythm. Some parts of the book flow beautifully and effectively reflect Charlotte’s own whimsical nature; other sections feel a little forced. It seems that Foenkinos tried to condense such complex life stories into these one-liners that the reader is left wanting to know about the secondary figures in Charlotte’s narrative.
Salomon herself is remembered fondly by a small number of people and those who know of her are instantly fascinated. Her life can best be summarised with the title of one of her own art collections: Life? Or Theatre?
The whimsical, heart-breaking and fast-paced writing style within this novel captures Charlotte well. Unfortunately, it is not enough to make this work a wholly satisfying read.
Charlotte by David Foenkinos
Photo courtesy of Canongate