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Posted on 12 Sep 2023 in Fiction | 1 comment

LEAH KAMINSKY Doll’s Eye. Reviewed by Kim Kelly

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Part literary romance, part cultural odyssey, Doll’s Eye is a lively challenge to the tropes of contemporary Australian Holocaust fiction.

Author, physician, Jew, lover of science, nature and language: these bright strands of Leah Kaminsky’s real-life identity are woven through her fictions. Her first novel, The Waiting Room (2015), charts the experiences of a young Melbourne doctor in Israel as she struggles with the weight of her family’s Shoah trauma; her second novel, The Hollow Bones (2019), explores with lyrical precision the cold ambitions of zoologist Ernst Shäfer as he rides the rising wave of Nazi power.    

In Doll’s Eye, Kaminsky returns to the far-reaching consequences of violent fascism. This time, she takes us from the pre-war, ever-gathering storm of Nazi hate in Germany and Poland to the tiny Northern Territory town of Birdum – where the railway terminus in those days ‘prodded its way like some blind feeler groping into the heart of the land’. And where the central characters find temporary refuge.

Anna Winter, a collector and fixer of broken dolls, is a German immigrant with a murky past, a woman isolated by her burden of secrets who prefers ‘tales with happy endings’ – and the company of her dolls. Alter Mayseh, a Yiddish poet from Warsaw and collector of stories, is a wandering, penniless and idealistic ‘citizen of the world’ who is seeking a sanctuary for all Europe’s Jews and unity for all humankind. Alter is a man who looks to the future, hoping to carry the rich traditions of his people forward; Anna, by contrast, is caught up in the confusions and shame of her past, wishing she could disappear. When these two fall in love at the end of the North Australia Railway line, their shared European sensibilities and intellectuality seem almost set to overcome their differences – until Anna’s lurking secrets and the story Alter ultimately chooses to believe overwhelm them.  

Kaminsky has a rare and sparkling talent for showing how love operates within grim realities caused by human frailty and evil, writing with both charm and honesty – a wordsmith of such skill she can even make an SS scientist like Schäfer seem momentarily alluring. Using the Holocaust as a dramatic backdrop to romance is a popular device in commercial fiction, and an often problematic one, especially where the unimaginable, criminal violence of the concentration camps and ghettoes is exploited for its horror, and where Jews are reduced to emblematic, eternal victims. But Doll’s Eye contains no such sensationalism or trivialisation. Kaminsky’s insight is careful, in equal parts curious and compassionate: in real life, her mother was a Holocaust survivor whose own trauma ended in suicide. Her characters, then, are always complexly human. While their names might seem to be cyphers – Anna’s original name, Müller, is a common German name, making her a kind of everywoman; and Alter Mayseh means ‘old song’ in Yiddish, redolent of the enduring verses of the Torah – they are both intricately explored, complete with contradictions and faults, strengths and wit, and each is capable of childishness. They are real.

There is an earthy physicality to Kaminsky’s broader cast of characters: they fart and sweat at the bar in Birdum; men finger their lovers under the table at Yiddish literary soirees. Her fictional people are fully alive. And it is particularly delightful, as well as unusual, that Kaminsky has brought European Jewish culture to such vivid life in this novel. For all of the Holocaust fiction that’s been penned over the past few years, Jewishness in its many dimensions and diversity is seldom explored by Australian writers, at least in the commercial space. Through Alter Mayseh, we are treated to that most traditional Jewish sport of arguing – the testing of ideas via their expression and questioning. We meet the boisterous and the boring among the Yiddish Writers Union; and we meet impoverished shtetl communities, too. We are shown vibrant details of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We hear the philosophy of Spinoza, and a great deal of Yiddish, far beyond the expected ‘schleppings’ and ‘schmucks’.

An ancient tongue spoken for over five thousand years would have died, if it were not for those who clung to what they saw as the word of God. Since then, a pastiche passed through the lips of Jews wherever they roamed, a babel of dialects and utterances tacked together like barnacles. Worldly words, used for laughter, tears, arguments and making love. Ghost words scattered by stray winds, sinking into the quicksand of time. Lullabies sung by generations of mothers to their trembling infants – Bey meyn kindeleh’s vigele, shteyt a klor veys tsigele – a child’s wagon guarded by a small white goat.

In this love story about language and tale-telling, the contrasts drawn between the English literature of Australia and European literature are sharp. Through Anna’s reading, we hear,

They were, in the main, books filled with tragic sentimental travelogues, certain that the opening-up of the interior by pioneers would afford the advance of civilisation. Bush ballads and adventure novels written by those with urban imaginations who took voracious bites out of the landscape …  

Alter is curious about the amount of landscape-heavy literature on Australian shelves, too, but decides that ‘death by landscape seemed a better alternative than falling victim to the wildfires of antisemitism and hatred rapidly spreading across Europe’.  

Anna and Alter’s outsider observations of colonialism are always interesting and appropriately unsettling, but some readers might find equivalences made by Alter between threats to Yiddish survival and the loss of the First Nations’ Yangman language are occasionally a little stretched. It might seem a bold choice, too, to render almost all of the Anglo Australians in the story as cultureless and ignorant ‘simple folk’, but it is at the same time refreshing to see such reductions being handed out to those characters who have taken up so much literary space in the past.  

Kaminsky shows that the forces of assimilation, while often slow, are potent cultural thieves. There is a poignant moment towards the end of the novel, where Anna’s most beloved doll, Lalka, is used as a model for a mass produced ‘Lorraine’, and she becomes distressed at the Australianisation of her cherished connection to a home and family she no longer has. Many Australians will also relate to the clumsy way ‘foreign’ family names are anglicised, ‘turning them bland for easier public consumption: Aarons becoming Ashton, Cohen vanishing under Cowan’ (my own, having been changed from German Schwebel to Swivel three generations ago, remains oddly wrong). As well, the idea that Anna and Alter are ‘two intruders searching for a home’ is one that will undoubtedly speak to many for whom ‘home’ is a sometimes strange and changeable concept.

There is not space in this review to discuss Kaminsky’s masterfully intricate puzzle-piece structure, or the fascinating way she uses the motifs of dolls and children throughout. One other striking aspect of the novel worth mentioning, however, is its loose ends: questions posed throughout the story that aren’t answered, but rather hang like Chekhov’s guns, deliberately placed and not shot – and not divulged here so as not to spoil the reading experience. Perhaps Kaminsky has left so much unresolved as a nod to Yiddish storytelling, described by US scholar Dara Horn in her recent essay collection People Love Dead Jews (2021) as tales that eschew happy endings, great epiphanies and redemptions. Whatever the case, it invites me to ponder Kaminsky’s choices – and Yiddish storytelling – further.

Those readers who are drawn to Holocaust novels will find a fresh and challenging perspective in Doll’s Eye. And it is arguably important that this period in history continues to be explored from different perspectives, not only to memorialise the suffering of Jews and many others, but to warn us of the dangers of complacency. It is a testament to Kaminsky’s deep and serious engagement with this history – and adjacent colonial histories of injustice – that she is able to include at the tender centre of this novel such a joyous and expansive cultural celebration.

For this reader, the shining star of Doll’s Eye’s cultural celebration is its Yiddish poet, Alter Mayseh. With his heart-shaped beard, high-waisted breeches, and his exuberant love of words, I have no doubt that, like Anna, I’d have fallen for him too.

Leah Kaminsky Doll’s Eye Vintage 2023 PB 256pp $32.99

Kim Kelly is the author of twelve novels. Her latest, The Rat Catcher: A Love Story, was shortlisted for Viva La Novella and longlisted for the ARA Historical Novel Prize. She is currently researching the representation of Jewish people and history in Australian fiction for a PhD at Macquarie University. Find out more about Kim at:

You can buy Doll’s Eye from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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1 Comment

  1. This indepth and tantalising review inspires me to move Doll’s Eye higher on my TBR pile. I loved and was so moved by Kaminsky’s ‘The Waiting Room’ and was fascinated by the perspectives in ‘The Hollow Bones’. ‘Doll’s Eye’ evokes the promise of a deeply personal, emotional journey in a foreign landscape, at least to the main characters of the novel. The concept and background of the dolls absolutely intrigues me and I cannot wait to read. Thank you, Kim Kelly. And, especially, thank you, Leah Kaminsky!