Review: Among the Branded by Linda Smolkin

★★★★ Among the Branded by Linda Smolkin

Finding hidden treasures in forgotten relics of the past is a romantic notion that has played out in countless books and films, yet the thrill of the mystery never seems to lessen. In Among the Branded, a new novel by author Linda Smolkin, readers are thrown into a slowly unfurling mystery surrounding a sheaf of “Love Letters From the War.” Stephanie Britain, a bold and impulsive art director, is the narrator and focal character of the novel, as well as the person who stumbles across the love letters at a flea market.

When she shares her exciting discovery with her co-worker, Sveta, who offers to translate the letters, it quickly becomes clear that they aren’t from soldiers back to their wives and girlfriends. Instead, they are from prisoners being held in internment and concentration camps in Vichy-controlled France. Stephanie does some digging and puts the pieces of one letter together, and soon connects with a man named Izzy, who had only been a child when the Gestapo took his parents. Their lives begin to intertwine, even more so when he gives Stephanie the journal he had kept about his tumultuous childhood.

Adding complexity and depth to the novel, Stephanie’s grandfather had been in the war, and her husband is passionate about historical reenactments. It seems as though every piece of her life fits  well with this mysterious bundle of letters that falls into her lap, but digging into the past can be painful. As she explores deeper, more and more about Izzy’s life and story become clear, including the passing of his wife, and what began as a chance meeting turns into a life-changing friendship, and a chance for long-awaited peace.

Stephanie and Izzy make for a great team, but some of the other characters are forgotten in the shuffle of the plot, including Stephanie’s husband. The rapidity with which Izzy becomes a “part of the family” also seems slightly unbelievable, but it is essential to drive the plot forward. A lot happens in this story, and while the pace is steady, it seems unnecessarily rushed at times.

Much of the narration is declarative and action-oriented, but there is limited peripheral description or aesthetic context in which the action takes place. For a story centered on the past, nostalgia, and memory, there isn’t an overabundance of rich prose that readers might expect. The dialogue throughout the story also seems stilted, and readers are often told about the emotions of a certain character, rather than shown through conversation or more refined interactions. The plot itself is highly engaging, however, and the burgeoning friendship and connection between Stephanie and Izzy is both heartwarming and intriguing.

As an overall work, this book touches on important themes, such as the bonds of family, the overlooked horrors of history, and the lessons they can still teach us today. Linda Smolkin shows off her storytelling skills in Among the Branded, and while a bit more time and care could be taken in painting a vivid picture of these characters, the power and gravitas of the story itself make this a successful and enjoyable tale.

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Among the Branded