This 481-page book is divided into four parts, each told by six-year-old narrators from the same family but of different generations and over a period of some fifty years, beginning in 2004 and working backwards to 1944–45. Their age is perhaps the hardest aspect of the novel to grasp: it takes a very strong suspension of disbelief to imagine people so young having such an extensive vocabulary and being so mature: attempts by the narrators to explain away problems they are too young to understand just don't have a ring of truth. However, this is a very powerful work that is difficult to put down as various unexplained facets of the story become clearer as each narrator speaks.
A rudimentary family tree just before the first part of the book tells us that first narrator, Sol, is the son of Randall and Tessa. Sol lives in the US and tells us about his parents, how his Catholic mother decided that with her husband Randall (born of a Jewish father Aron) that they would be Protestants. Tessa comes over as overbearingly child-centred, excessively concerned about a birthmark of Sol's for which she forces him to have removed by operation, but it goes wrong. (Birthmarks are a theme throughout.) Sol's story was a problem to me, as I found myself asking if he was an unreliable narrator: the almost Godlike belief in himself seemed to chime with Tessa's excessive parental behaviour, but the masturbating to violent sex on the net, the obsessions with extreme torture suggested more psychosis than a normal part of growing up.
Randall's narration (of 1982) reveals a few interesting things apart from the increasing significance of birthmarks and the minor point about the aborted picnic: this is the other side of the parental coin, and whereas Randall's father Aron is very supportive of him, his mother Sadie – who is a researcher and the one who brings in the money while Aron's play-writing doesn't do well – feels neglected. The family's move from the US to Israel (insisted on by Sadie) is a disaster.
Sadie's narration (of 1962) also shows a certain maternal neglect as her mother Kristina, a successful singer who leaves Sadie to her grandparents as she tours the world enjoying fame and many lovers both male and female. But Sadie later joins her mother with her new impresario husband. It's in this year that she learns that her mother was once German, and sees her mother have sex with a man called Luth (French for 'lute'): we know that Kristina (who has a few other names) owes her success to a lute (which has never appeared in any of her performances).
The reader discovers the truth in six-year-old Kristina's narration: her really being Ukrainian, being adopted under the Nazi Lebensborn programme, the full story of Luth, her birthmark, etc.
Sadie's narration, though: Marilyn Monroe's death is certainly spot-on date-wise, but all those Beatles songs from the same year? No, a bit later.
As I said before though, a great read.