The book often has a dreamy quality of reverie or incantation, as Verzemnieks reconstructs, imagines and inhabits other people’s memories and accounts of war and flight. It requires a kind of attention that can be difficult to sustain, despite the beauty on almost every page. But this book is important. We are now experiencing another global refugee crisis. Among the Living and the Dead shows the consequences of being forced from home — how that loss is passed through the generations, as children and grandchildren struggle to build their lives ... At its most basic, war breaks connections. This exquisitely written book shows how recovery can come generations later through rebuilding connections — to people, the natural world, the past.
With narratives as dreamy and nightmarish as a living Grimms’ fairy tale, the book is a family biography of her grandmother and great-aunt. The personal story is seamlessly backed by the author’s deep research, from scholarly papers to records found in 'a file in an unmarked warehouse located at the end of an unpaved service road in Riga' ... [a] magical combination of history and personal history.
One might ask why Verzemnieks puts Ausma through the pain of it all. (Indeed, she asks this herself.) Why is knowing the story so important to her? Describing the feeling of arriving in Latvia, Verzemnieks says it was like her 'DNA is singing.' It’s a more vivid way of saying, in the current idiom, that she 'identifies.' Maybe that’s all the explanation necessary in our age of genetic and genealogical fascination. Who doesn’t want to know where they come from? And since Verzemnieks writes so well, who wouldn’t want to accompany her on her journey? ... Verzemnieks is too intelligent and humane a writer to fall into the nationalist trap, and her inquiry into the past confronts the uncomfortable aspects of Latvians’ participation in the war — their murky role as front-line soldiers in Hitler’s army and their culpability as persecutors and murderers of Latvia’s Jews — but it is impossible to read her book without drawing present-day analogies.