Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

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Chosen by Rachel

An aspiring novelist is captivated by a Holocaust survivor and her unpredictable boyfriend

❝ Stingo is a Southern young man aspiring to be a novelist and living off the income from his grandmother’s controversial sale of slaves many years’ prior.

He moves to New York and there meets Sophie, an Aushwitz survivor and her biochemist boyfriend Nathan who both enchants and infuriates our protagonist. The relationship between the trio is intense and sometimes maddening, with Stingo playing an active part in the emotional aspect of his friends’ courtship.

The current day drama is broken up by Sophie’s extended recollections of the war and her 20 months spent in one of German’s most notorious concentration camps. By making Sophie Polish, the author demonstrates how the Holocaust was a crime against humanity, not only Jewish people.

Despite her already extended suffering, Sophie’s boyfriend likes to, among other heinous things, question her about what she had to do to survive Aushwitz when others did not. Taking the role of Sophie’s newest oppressor, he ensures her state of victimhood and unnatural dependance on him remain.

The author does not use overt horror to ram home his story, rather a snippet told in the briefest of words is often the hardest to read. Characters are convincing, portraying the full spectrum of humanity, from guards evil to those reluctant to hurt; from prisoners who suffered immensely to those who gave up their best friend for an extra crust of bread.

The story of ill-treatment is replicated in other pages of the book by Sophie’s disturbed boyfriend and to a certain degree by Stingo who, as sympathetic and likeable as he seemed, still exhibited a lack of objectivity and a domination of women which unfortunately was common at this post-war time. This is seen right down to the very pages themselves in which Stingo is possessing Sophie by writing about her.

“Those strange creepy people, all picking at their little… scabs,” she had complained to me when Nathan was not around. “I hate this type of”—and here I thought she used a lovely gem of a phrase—”unearned unhappiness!”

❝ There are many good Holocaust novels but for me, Sophie’s Choice is unrivalled. Plus it’s so much more than a Holocaust story. As traumatic as the book sounds – and is – I was gripped by every action and every one of Stingo’s tales. Yes the characters are messed up, but they are drawn particularly well and what I enjoyed the most was observing and analysing their tangled relationship from a social and historical aspect. – Rachel

❝ I found Sophie’s Choice totally enjoyable, though I would recommend that potential readers prepare by investing time and effort into this mammoth book. The relationship between the three main characters is fascinating and I invested a lot of thought into their actions. I felt strongly that Stingo’s lack of action to protect Sophie was totally understandable given that Nathan was such an oppressive and formidable character. – Jo

❝ This was an engrossing story and I was swept up in the present day story as well as Sophie’s extremely grim Holocaust memories. The slow unravelling of both storylines was tense and engaging. A negative for me was that it felt like the character of Sophie was fetishised by the author at times and this made for uncomfortable reading. After learning about the slightly autobiographical nature of the book this became almost repugnant. – Suzy

❝ The first person narrative suited the telling of the story in Sophie’s Choice. I felt like I was sitting next to Stingo as he told me his story – it had a real confessional feel to it. Stingo relayed events in a compassionate and compelling way, with a touch of humour thrown in the mix to offset the trauma. The story unwound steadily, leaving me wanting more as Sophie’s secrets were drip fed to us. I thoroughly enjoyed the characterisation of Sophie, Nathan and Stingo and the complex, frustrating dynamics of their friendship. A great novel on many different levels.” – Jodie

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Published 1979
Random House
562 pages

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