For a historical novel purportedly attempting to tell an intergenerational, transnational tale of the fortunes of a German Jewish family torn apart by the two world wars and the Holocaust, The Silver Music Box by Mina Baites, it must be admitted at the outset, disappoints sorely. Its hold on the lived reality of the many decades separating these catastrophic events is slender and tenuous; it is disconcerting to find that the writer of a novel detailing the Holocaust jettisons any attempt to look with depth and complexity into these events and the horrific impact they had on individual lives. The Author’s Note at the end suggests that one of the important intentions in writing the novel was to clarify the misconception that only Christian German soldiers fought in the First World War. In fact, as Baites asserts, there were one hundred thousand Jewish soldiers who fought bravely for their country, amongst whom around twelve thousand were killed in action. Quite obviously they had no inkling of the insanity that would be unleashed within a few years after the completion of the war. While Baites lists her historical sources, and the reader should have no quarrel with her accuracy in the presentation of facts, it is the breezy and simplistic conjuring of the characters’ lives, their emotions, thoughts and consciousness in which the author is insufficiently invested that jarred this reviewer.
As the title suggests, it is a family heirloom that connects members of the different generations of the Blumenthal family scattered across two continents which the novel attempts to portray. In 1914, Johann Blumenthal, a Jewish silversmith of Hamburg, crafts his most exquisite creation after signing up to fight for his country: an ornamental silver box with a singing filigree bird inside, as a parting gift for his four-year old son Paul. Half a century later a Londoner Lilian Morrison inherits the box after the death of her parents. With this keepsake, along with a letter and some papers, Lilian comes to know that she was adopted. In more than half the novel, Baites employs a straightforward omniscient narrative that tells the story of Johann and his struggles on the war front; his son Paul growing to adulthood during the years that Hitler rose to power, the incremental terrors experienced by him, his extended family and the Jewish population as a whole. This narrative terminates abruptly just around the years leading up to the Second World War, switching to the story of Lilian in the London of the 60s. Her search for her roots therefore fills in the gaps uncovering a trial leading to her troubled and violent past, finally connecting to her single living parent in South Africa.