Book review: Inkflower, Suzy Zail

For YA readers and older, this book touches on the story of a Holocaust survivor, interlaced with more current dramas of his teenage child.

Inkflower is aimed at young adults, defined as 14 years of age and over. It relates the experiences of a Holocaust survivor as told by his teenage daughter, Lisa. She quotes her father, Emil, verbatim. She also recounts her daily experiences at school, at home and with friends while her father is dying a slow death from motor neurone disease. 

So it hardly needs saying that this novel is not an easy read. The detailed experiences of a person who survived bullying, persecution and discrimination as a Jewish boy in what was then Czechoslovakia, followed by starvation in forced labour camps, and culminating in a spell in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp makes for uncomfortable reading to say the least. Emil tells his story to his loving wife, two sons and his daughter while he slowly loses the ability to use his muscles. Understandably, Lisa doesn’t cope too well and, as she recounts her experiences, relationships and problems, the reader is reminded what it’s like to be a troubled teen in a stressful situation.

This novel is grounded in fact. What happened to Emil is based on what happened to Zail’s father. Obviously, the author believes that it is good for young people to be made aware of the Holocaust, not least because antisemitism has not disappeared, and dreadful diseases can attack those we love. She says:

Maybe that’s why I wrote this book for teens, because in these uncertain times … we’re still hurting each other. And maybe in Inkflower I’ve created something healing, something kids can take forward into their lives … a book that lets them hold onto hope and build resilience.

Suzy Zail

For those adult readers who dare advise their teenagers on what to read, I can only say read this book first and then decide. 

Read: Book review: Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life, Anna Funder

It would be unfair, though, to convey the impression that this book is all doom and gloom. It also offers hope and a better understanding of the human condition. There is an amusing episode where a teacher suggests students should recount the stupid things people say at funerals:

God must’ve needed your dad in heaven.
I told your mum to stop smoking.
It’s not a big deal because literally everyone dies.
I don’t want to sound mean, but you need to move on.
Call me back when you’ve stopped crying.
I know how you feel. My pet fish died last year.

Suzy Zail, Inkflower

For those readers who do not sneer at a book marketed to young adults I can only say this book is well worth your attention. The story Lisa tells about herself is an excellent account of what it is like to be a troubled but inherently happy teenager. The story Emil tells is a masterful rendering of what millions experienced and few survived. Add to this the lessons that can be learned from watching a family cope with a disabling disease.

Inkflower by Suzy Zail
Publisher: Walker Books
ISBN: 9781760653736
Format: Paperback

Pages: 380pp
RRP $22.99
Publication: 5 July 2023

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.