Title: Paragraph 175
Author: Ruby Lis
Pages/Word Count: 276 Pages
Rating: 3 Stars
Blurb: Berlin, 1936. The carefree, hedonistic days of the Weimar Republic have ended, replaced by the conservatism of the Nazi Party. Stricter interpretations of laws such as Paragraph 175 criminalize homosexual activity. For gays, falling in love is punishable by prison or death.
German artist Klaus Wagner is too cynical to be concerned with love and too cavalier to be concerned with the law, until Nikolai Komarovski catches his eye. The handsome Russian’s shy smile and quick humor soon capture Klaus’ heart as well. When Dachs Voss, a one night stand from Klaus’ past, threatens their relationship, Klaus is willing to sacrifice life itself to save his lover.
Review: When I received my review copy of Paragraph 175, a warning came with it, courtesy of the writer: the book doesn’t end with a happily-ever-after. I had to laugh because I’ve come to expect any book or movie set in Nazi Germany to be a pretty tragic one. I do appreciate the warning, though; the book is a tragedy, but it does end on a hopeful, happy note for the surviving character.
When I first read the book blurb, I knew I wanted to try it. And here’s my caveat: I’m not always eager for stories involving Nazis. My experience reading books or watching films on this subject has always been traumatizing on different levels. For example, I was absolutely horrified and shaken up after seeing A Love to Hide; while I’m glad I watched it, I won’t see it again. And though I’ll never discount such books or films in the future, I have to be in a certain frame of mind or just in the right mood for the next title I hope to devote a good deal of my time on. And in the case of Ruby Lis’s novel, I was just in the mood for it, tragedy or no tragedy, as it’s been a dog’s age since I last lost myself in a book with the same theme.
And here comes the praise.
I tip my hat to the author for self-publishing her debut novel, tackling such a dark moment in our recent history. It’s quite ballsy, I’d like to add, especially since she sugarcoats nothing about Nazi oppression or the overly conservative culture that dogs Klaus and Nikolai’s relationship with each, as well as their respective families. Yes, there’s a concentration camp in this novel. And it’s appropriately explored, the atrocities laid out for us but without being gratuitous about the violence. People die in the book, some more horribly than others, but this is history we’re looking at, and their stories need to be told, reader willingness be damned.
Amid the misery, there’s still quite a bit of nobility and even joy, however short-lived and, in some cases, desperate. The book boasts a rich cast of characters, with the minor ones enjoying their time in the spotlight without overshadowing Klaus and Nikolai. Each has a role to play and a specific purpose in pushing the plot forward – from innocence and safety to inevitable tragedy, revenge, and a bittersweet, triumphant conclusion. The female characters, especially, come out on top in the way they’re written. They’re not one-dimensional harpies hell-bent on destroying our gay lovers; true, Svetlana doesn’t really win any favors, but she’s barely in the book, and her final scenes are quite pathetic. Anna, Nikolai’s mother, seems to be a harridan and unnecessarily harsh toward her son, but she slowly softens as the plot’s tension spirals, and she’s shown to be noble and brave in the way she helps Jewish customers.
As an aside, you can pretty much tell that the book uses the 3rd person omniscient point-of-view. It’s a POV that’s suffered a bad rep nowadays, and I’ve no idea why. A good number of books from the classic Western canon make good use of this POV, so the shift to the rigid (and sometimes frothing) “No head-hopping allowed!” rule remains baffling to me because it can be important, depending on the book. The scope of the plot of Paragraph 175 actually requires the POV to shift a lot. As I’ve noted, the story can’t be told with just two main characters and their alternating POVs. The plot’s too complex for it because of the politics involved and especially the human element that drives it. Thanks to the author’s use of the 3rd person omniscient, we’re treated to not just main characters, but side characters who’re more multi-layered than what we’re used to nowadays – some more so than others, of course.
And with the praise comes the criticism.
Because this is a debut effort, the book’s bogged down by its rough edges. Piggy-backing on the POV issue, the shifts from one character’s head to another are rather clumsy, and here’s why: there’s a great deal of dialogue but hardly any descriptions, particularly transitions from scene to scene or from character to character. I’m talking about setting, especially, and character movement within scenes. Yes, the characters obviously interact with each other, but the emotion’s almost abstract because there’s a greater reliance on telling and not showing. And even that telling is quite light. Yes, Klaus is doing this because we’re told he is. Yes, Nikolai’s feeling that because we’re told he is. Klaus is in a club that’s decadent because there’s X and Y, but we don’t see anything else, and none of our senses are engaged. I admit to being thrown off, confused, several times throughout the book because I thought the scene was X, when it was actually Y, and so on.
The first half of the book suffers from this; the second half, which mostly takes place in a concentration camp, is a lot better developed and easier to visualize. Scenes outside the concentration camp in the second half of the book still suffer from the same vagueness of setting, however.
The one emotional scene that I’m sure will get under the reader’s skin, involves a really touching private moment between Klaus and Nikolai, where they pretend they’re in Moscow. It’s well done and incredibly emotional, though teetering on the brink of heavy sentimentality – very much a tearjerker moment. Unfortunately, it’s the only emotional connection I had with the characters. Because the descriptions are vague from the book’s first scene onward, I didn’t feel as solidly placed in Klaus and Nikolai’s world. As much as I wanted to sympathize and ache for them, it didn’t really happen till this late in the book, and after that, the connection faded again.
The next time I did feel some emotional connection was through the revenge scene. I can’t say more about it besides the fact that I was blown away by the grimness of the moment – the cold, methodical bloodlust fueling the scene makes the catharsis I felt reading it almost disturbing. It wasn’t as strong as the fantasy Moscow scene, but it packed enough of a wallop with its icy brutality to make me slow down and read it, mouth hanging open.
The last criticism I have of the book is the way the antagonist is written. Dachs Voss is a sadist in the extreme sense, his motives and movements so outrageous that I found him more of a caricature than a representative of a real Nazi criminal. As far as Nazi atrocities are concerned, nothing shocks me anymore, but I’ll admit to drumming my fingers on the desk and frowning dubiously at those scenes involving Dachs. Many of his scenes, in fact, I had to skim over because they seemed redundant past a certain point. His twisted obsession with Klaus, when held up as a foil to the sweeter, more innocent relationship of Klaus and Nikolai, certainly raises the love story to a height that’s almost mythological. But I found myself somewhat cheated by the extreme contrast, when Dachs’ personal story could’ve been mined more effectively to provide us with a convincing villain.
That said, those rough edges are the only things that keep me from giving this book a higher rating. On a less significant note, there are formatting problems in the e-book as well as occasional sentence-level errors that could’ve been fixed with proper editing. But it’s Ruby Lis’s debut effort, and she clearly has the ability to gift us with complex, historical gay titles. If her first attempt is this daring, warts and all, I can’t even imagine what her future output will look like, with more writing experience under her belt. It’s bound to be a very good one, for sure.
You can buy Paragraph 175 here: