This luscious debut is a breath-taking, beautiful piece of fiction set in war-torn Europe during WWI and its aftermath. I was quickly drawn into the life of Lev Pearlmutter, an assimilated German Jew, at odds with himself and his world at this momentous time in our history. After joining the military in 1916, Lev is posted to the Eastern Front. It is while serving there that he meets and falls for Leah, a beautiful young Jewish woman who lives with her extended family. Lev’s exposure to her way of life becomes a life-changing experience for him.
Upon his return to Berlin, Lev must deal with his distant wife, his treasured daughter, and his difficult son while he tries to reconcile his feelings for Leah and about his Jewish identity to the life he currently lives. This period piece is so well-drawn that you feel yourself walking the streets with Lev and his family, experiencing their emotions, fear, and fates. Despite all that has been written of this era, your understanding of this time and this place and what it meant to be Jewish in Berlin between the two World Wars will stay with you long after your turn the last page.
— Terry Gilman
***2015 National Jewish Book Award Finalist***
A sweeping, gorgeously written debut:
a novel of duty to family and country, the dictates of passion, and blood ties unraveling in the charged political climate of Berlin between the world wars.
Lev Perlmutter, an assimilated, cultured German Jew, enlists to fight in World War I, leaving behind his gentile wife, Josephine, and their children, Franz and Vicki. Moving between Lev's and Josephine's points of view, the first part of the novel focuses on Lev's experiences on the Eastern Front--both in war and in love--which render his life at home a pale aftermath by comparison. The second part of the novel takes us to Berlin, 1927-28. Now young adults, the Perlmutter children grapple with their own questions: Franz, drawn into the Nazi brown shirt movement, struggles with his unexpressed homosexuality; Vicki, seduced by the Jazz Age and everything new, bobs her hair and falls in love with a young man who wants to take her to Palestine.
Unlike many historical novels of its kind, The Empire of the Senses
is not about the Holocaust but about the juxtaposition of events that led to it, and about why it was unimaginable to ordinary people like Lev and his wife. Plotted with meticulous precision and populated with characters who feel and dream to the fullest, it holds us rapt as the tides of cultural loss and ethnic hatred come to coexist with those of love, passion, and the power of the human spirit.