All the Beautiful Liars: Sylvia Petter

“Memories? They’re the bits you feel and the bits you’re told, and they all come together in your mind as sound bytes and snapshots. Some you lose, and some become part of someone else’s memories. Some bits just disappear, and you end up looking for them for the rest of your life, not knowing why, because all you can do now is to care or break down.”

Katrina Klain grew up in Australia. Her parents, Alfred and Bettina, came over from Germany after the Second World War. They never talk about the past. When she asks her parents why the children in her school call her a Nazi, they say they will tell her another time. What happened back in Germany? What did they run from?

Then one day, a postcard for Bettina arrives from Austria. Bettina tells Katarina that it is from Harald, Alfred’s brother. This is the first time that Katarina hears that she has an uncle. She peppers her mother with questions. “Mum went to the sideboard. Bruised camellia petals had fallen from their wiry stems. She swept them into her hand and propped the postcard against the empty vase. ‘He is dead,’ she said.”

Obviously there had been a falling out between the two brothers. According to Alfred, Harald was a deserter, but there seems to be more to that story. The family is full of secrets. Alfred’s mother hated Bettina and it wasn’t entirely clear why. Katrina tries to ferret out the reason: it was not just the fact that Bettina was a farm girl and a Protestant. “My grandmother thought that my mother had discovered a secret, and had kept silent for most of her life. The silence must have been more excruciating for my grandmother than any divulgence.” What was the secret?

Katrina decides to find out for herself. So she books herself a trip to Europe to find the truth about her family, starting with Vienna to find her uncle Harald. Was her uncle really a deserter or an anti-Nazi hero? In East Germany, Bettina’s sister Irmgard tells her about Bettina as a girl in her Arbeitsdienst uniform, from whom the family had to hide the fact that their father was helped by a Jew. It seems that everything Katrina discovers about her family just leads to more questions.

The story unfolds from the points of view of Katrina and Bettina. Bit by bit, Sylvia Petter unravels the tangle of lies and half-truths that Katrina has been told.

I enjoyed this book. The framing device is quite interesting. Katrina is on a 20-hour flight back to Australia and is trying to put the pieces of her family’s history together, almost like she is watching an in-flight movie. What threw me was the way Petter begins. Katrina seems to be a place of limbo, a panopticon, after being murdered. She is prompted to tell her story by the spirit of a journalist, Jaimie Stadler, who refers to himself as “the keeper of lost endings”. He obviously knows a great deal about her life, but she needs to tell the story to be able to get out of the panopticon.

But let’s not forget that, in the end, these are Katrina’s memoirs, and it’s never clear how much of the narrative is true. Petter plays with the way we remember, blurring the line between reality and fiction (the subtitle of the book is The Fictional Memoirs of Katrina Klain, which should sound warning bells!). I love the way Petter does this: I find subjective views of reality fascinating. And after all, don’t we all mix up reality and imagined reality in the way we remember things, in the way we play out our memories in the cinema of our minds? We are all, in a way, beautiful liars.

Note: I know Sylvia from the time she lived in Geneva.

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