Title: The Hollow Bones
Author: Leah Kaminsky
Published: March 5th 2019
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4.5 stars
Berlin, 1936. Ernst Schäfer, a young, ambitious zoologist and keen hunter and collector, has come to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who invites him to lead a group of SS scientists to the frozen mountains of Tibet. Their secret mission: to search for the origins of the Aryan race. Ernst has doubts initially, but soon seizes the opportunity to rise through the ranks of the Third Reich.
While Ernst prepares for the trip, he marries Herta, his childhood sweetheart. But Herta, a flautist who refuses to play from the songbook of womanhood and marriage under the Reich, grows increasingly suspicious of Ernst and his expedition.
When Ernst and his colleagues finally leave Germany in 1938, they realise the world has its eyes fixed on the horror they have left behind in their homeland.
A lyrical and poignant cautionary tale, The Hollow Bones brings to life one of the Nazi regime’s little-known villains through the eyes of the animals he destroyed and the wife he undermined in the name of science and cold ambition.
In her opening Author’s Note, Leah Kaminsky states, ‘While The Hollow Bones is a work of fiction, it is inspired by true events. This is an invented narrative, fed by imagination, and I have used artistic licence with historical facts, geographies and character details’. Despite this precursor, the impact of The Hollow Bones by Leah Kaminsky on this reader was significant. I was moved by the hidden history, the brevity of the tale and the man at the very centre of this novel, Ernst Schäfer. A novel defined by moments of love, passion, ambition and dedication, The Hollow Bones will habituate your mindset, long after the final word has been read.
Following the world of real life figure, Ernst Schäfer, The Hollow Bones chronicles this complex man’s childhood, through to his research and eventual work with the Nazi party. Recruited by none other than Heinrich Himmler, this passionate zoologist and hunter catches the eye of the top Nazi figurehead, who recruits Ernst to be part of a team sent to the Tibet mountains to uncover the true origins of the Aryan race. Although Ernst is a man of science and nature, he cannot resist the charms of the Nazi regime, who funds this lucrative secret mission. Ernst must balance his new role as a pertinent member of the Nazi party, with his love for his new wife Herta, who is also his childhood sweetheart. A gifted musician, Herta becomes subjected to rules and practices of the Reich. This doesn’t sit well with her, along with the Nazi influenced Tibet expedition that Ernst is so desperate to partake in. While so many atrocities are being committed by the party, the lure of this top level expedition is not enough to deter Ernst away from the unethical practices of the Nazi regime. In embarking on this mission, Ernst makes a choice that will impact both his own life and that of his beloved wife, Herta.
I was immediately struck by the eye catching bird motif on the front cover of The Hollow Bones. The bird is a hoopoe, a type of bird I had not previously come across. Striking with a crown of feathers upon its head, the hoopoe can be found in Europe and Asia, the the setting of this novel. Birds play a significant part in this novel, as they are the lead character’s research focus, among other fauna. It didn’t take long to get completely drawn into this novel. The perfect combination of an intriguing narrative, a fascinating hidden history, as well as a complicated main character, I consumed The Hollow Bones in just one sitting.
The narration in The Hollow Bones is original and compelling. Split style storytelling between the man of the tale, Ernst Schäfer, his dear wife Herta, and one of the animals, a young panda, captured and then stuffed to be put behind glass for decades in a natural history museum defines Leah Kaminsky’s fascinating historical fiction novel. This narrative division balances out the story well, it helped me as a reader to gain a better understanding of Ernst. I came to see Ernst as not just a Nazi officer that I developed quite a distaste for, but as a scientist, a hunter, a lover of nature (in his own warped way), and as a husband.
Kaminsky’s characterisation cannot be faulted, she is truly gifted in this department. The development of Ernst, Herta, the animals and many other side entrants of this novel made me see very clearly why Kaminsky’s writing is rated so highly. I am yet to read her other highly endorsed works, but I have made a conscious effort to further investigate Kaminsky’s writing very soon. Her prose has impact, each word and sentence has been clearly selected for her readers to better understand this novel and its important tale of forewarning. There are many passages that convey the natural world, especially the fauna in such a vivid light. I could easily visualise the animals Ernst was tracking down.
‘Ernst wanted to be like the hawk soaring with such mastery above the world, diving with lethal intent. His well loved shotgun gave him that power and more, for it allowed him to become a little bit godlike over even the birds of prey. He could decide whether to be content watching their dramatic movement as they arrowed in for the kill, or in an instant, fire a wing shot to drop them out of the sky.’
In terms of the history, this part of the novel elevated my working understanding of World War II to another level. I was not previously aware of the existence of the Nazi based team that went on this secret mission in the mountains of Tibet, in search of the key to proving the origins of the Aryan race. I also had not previous understanding of the World Ice Theory that populates this novel. I applaud Kaminsky in drawing my attention to this aspect of World War II and the practices of the Nazi party.
The Hollow Bones is a carefully researched novel, the evidence of this can be found at the close, in the ‘A Note on the Sources’ and the ‘Acknowledgments’ section. The segment of the novel that moved me greatly was the ‘Afterword’, which outlines Ernst Schäfer’s life after the war. Along with many other comrades in the Nazi party, these men and women were pardoned for the crimes they committed during the war. What angered me was that many of the Nazi’s like Ernst, were exonerated and they were able to live their lives, many continuing their academic research in the face of the millions who didn’t.
The Hollow Bones is a resonating story that probes into love, obsession and unthinkable acts, all of which is offset by a focus on the natural world. Penned by literary prize winner Leah Kaminsky, The Hollow Bones is a polished piece of historical fiction.
‘The most powerful language belongs to them. It’s the animals that make us human.’
The Hollow Bones by Leah Kaminsky is published on March 5th 2019 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Hollow Bones, Leah Kaminsky visit here.
*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Hollow Bones is book #60 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge