In the late 1930s, young Beatrice Palmer lives in Protestant Ireland with an ineffectual father and a mother who hates her bitterly; Beatrice can’t tell why. She’s been lucky in her childhood, though. She’s attached herself to a Mr. Knox, who tutors her in mythology and teaches her about birdwatching. In other words, he shows her that there are other, better existences than the one she endures at home with her toxic mother.
There’s something reminiscent of a fairy tale about Susanna Moore’s affecting new novel, “The Life of Objects.” When Beatrice comes upon some thread traditionally used to make Irish lace, she teaches herself the craft. She has more than a natural gift, and it isn’t long before a mysterious, beautifully dressed young woman asks her if she’d be interested in taking a job as a lacemaker for a prominent German family.
In many respects, Beatrice is more than ready. She receives no protection from her parents. “My father and I were in constant dread of [her mother],” she says. “I lived in a chaos of desire and disappointment.” Mr. Knox has already rewarded her with a new name, Maeve, a name redolent of Irish magic. She eagerly accepts the job to go work for “Dorothea Metzenburg, who lives in Berlin and owns a rare and extremely valuable collection of lace.” This offer is not what it seems to be, but Beatrice-now-Maeve has no way of knowing that. She’s intelligent but almost totally uninformed. She doesn’t have a clue, for instance, that World War II is looming on the horizon. To her mother’s contempt and horror, she decamps for Germany.
There Maeve encounters an entirely different world. Dorothea’s husband, Felix, has been an avid collector for his whole life: “I’d never seen anything as pretty as the silver plates decorated with bees, snails, and mulberries,” Maeve says. “The dinner service with mythological figures in red and gold had been used by Frederick the Great at Sanssouci. A fluted white beaker and saucer, painted with plump Japanese children, had come from the palace in Dresden.” But this isn’t all. The Metzenburgs’ entire home is crammed with priceless furniture, paintings, tapestries. Herr Metzenburg’s plan is to store all this treasure outside of Berlin at his wife’s childhood estate. Maeve, whose lacemaking skill is temporarily forgotten, helps with the packing.
Soon, the entire household moves to Dorothea’s old home. The villagers welcome them gladly, appearing to be more than willing to slip back into a feudal way of life: They give their loyalty to the Metzenburgs, who, in turn, protect the villagers. The Metzenburg treasure is buried cunningly all over the estate grounds. Maeve allows herself to believe the war may skate over them.
As food begins to run out, the servants learn to garden and prepare meals of wild mushroom soup, watercress salad and homemade jam. It’s a given that the Metzenburg household is anti-Nazi, but not all their friends and relatives share their view: Cousins steal schnapps and napkins right off their table, and buildings on the estate are plundered and vandalized.
The question becomes: Will all this hard-earned, carefully collected evidence of high civilization be able to hold out against the forces of barbarism? How will these people end up treating each other? (Two of the estate’s inhabitants may be Jewish.) Should the Metzenburgs flee when they have the chance? Dorothea says that Felix loves his treasure more than life, and she loves him more than life, so their next step isn’t obvious. As war descends, nothing is obvious in this exquisitely written novel. “The Life of Objects” is a refined and sensual treat.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
THE LIFE OF OBJECTS
By Susanna Moore
Knopf. 240 pp. $25