Like The News from Paraguay, Lily Tuck's National Book Award-winning 2004 novel, The Double Life of Liliane is a fragmented narrative, a mosaic of storytelling that is both poetic and absorbing.
Liliane's double life begins in 1948, in New York, when she boards a flight to Rome. She is 8 years old, on her way to visit her father, Rudy. He's a German Jewish film producer whose zigzag route out of Nazi Germany started in 1933 when he moved to Paris, established a film production company and married Liliane's mother. The marriage didn't last, and Liliane's stylish, artistic mother, Irene, has recently remarried, to a Wall Street investment banker.
Growing up, Liliane shuttles between her parents, speaking French with her father, English with her mother. She works to construct her own identity as she watches, listens and explores generations of her parents' families. Through Irene, she has ties to both the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn and Mary Queen of Scots. In Italy for the summer with her father and his Jamaican girlfriend, Liliane discovers Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse and The Story of O. Back with her mother and stepfather, Gaby, in Penobscot Bay, Maine, she wears a bikini and reads Peyton Place.
Liliane's paternal grandmother, Emilie, becomes an anchor amid the confusion, though Liliane is well aware how fragile and unlikely that connection is. "Do you know what I regret most?" Emilie asks her granddaughter. "That I let my mother die alone in Hamburg." But if she had stayed in Germany, Liliane says, "You might have been sent to one of the camps."
Tuck builds her story through compression, intensity and sometimes disorienting side trips. After introducing Liliane's Upper East Side riding instructor Mishka — rumored to be descended from Genghis Khan — she gives an elegant genealogical précis on the 16 million descendants of the Mongol conqueror and his mysterious final resting place. (She also includes a reference to Anna Freud's theories about young girls' obsession with horses, popular at the time.)
Elsewhere, we learn that the American singer Josephine Baker saved Rudy's life during the war. While baby Liliane and her mother leave Europe for safe haven with his relatives in Lima, Rudy enlists in the Foreign Legion from an internment camp in France. Discharged in 1941, he is stuck without papers in Marseille, fearing he will be deported to Germany. Through a chance encounter, Baker (who was doing clandestine work for the French intelligence service), helps him get a passport to travel to Morocco, opening the door to "life and liberty."
By the time she's in college, Liliane dreams of becoming a novelist. Her favorite class is a Harvard graduate seminar on allegory in the French poets taught by Paul de Man. His definition of autobiography stays with her, and seems to have inspired the whole novel: "I consider autobiography as an act of self-restoration in which the author recovers the fragments of his or her life into a coherent narrative."
This recovery of fragments, for this author, involves a near alchemical process: Tuck inhabits the spacious realm of the imagination, shifting time zones and historic periods effortlessly, weaving memories and photographs, family stories and facts, as Liliane's mesmerizing portrait emerges.