Review: The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein

51K80EHQE8L._SL500_AA240_You might not think 92 is the best age to start writing your first book. At 92, you probably can’t expect to write 3 books (let alone one) or have a bestseller. The odds are against you. But for those who say they are too old to try something new, I’ve got two words for you. Harry. Bernstein.

The Invisible Wall:  A Love Story That Broke Barriers by Harry Bernstein is a memoir of the author’s childhood during WW1, and of the forbidden love between his sister, a Jew, and the boy across the street, a Christian.

Harry grew up on a little street in a tiny Lancashire mill town with his long-suffering mother, his brutal alcoholic father, and his five siblings in the early decades of the 20th century. Jews lived on one side of the street and Christians on the other, in mutual wariness and quiet contempt (on a good day), with an “invisible wall” dividing them. Grinding poverty was the common ground.

“The one thing the two sides of our street had in common was poverty. When the landlord came to collect his shilling rent on Sunday afternoon, there was panic on both sides.”

For a thripennybit, Harry runs notes from a Jewish girl to a Christian boy in an empty ginger beer bottle. Even though he’s a little kid, he knows something’s up, but he really wants that money to buy candy in one of the Christian shops, so he continues to be a messenger for this couple. When the couple is caught kissing, all hell breaks loose and the girl’s family ships her off to Australia.  

The children attend school, under the threat of beatings and taunts by Christian kids every day on their walk home. But school is a refuge, and this is where Harry’s sister Lily shines. She is the favorite of the headmaster, who sees her potential and encourages it. She works hard, reading and studying night and day. When she wins a scholarship to a grammar school her mother is delighted, but in a soul-killing scene her father refuses to let her go, dragging her off by her hair to work in a tailoring shop.

Lily falls in love with Arthur Forshaw, a smart and kind Christian boy who encouraged her in her studies and protected Henry and his siblings on their walks from school. Arthur, along with many other boys on the street, both Jewish and Christian, is shipped off to the war. Some of these boys come back injured, some not at all. Arthur returns, and it is Lily and Arthur’s love that finally breaks down the invisible wall.

bern600THE BOTTOM LINE:  The Invisible Wall is a heartfelt memoir wrapped in a history lesson and sprinkled with tenderness. It reads like a novel because it’s setting is so far removed from modern day. Highly recommended.

MORE ABOUT HARRY BERNSTEIN:  Harry Bernstein lost Ruby, his wife of 67 years, in 2002. He was so distraught he considered suicide, but instead started writing. He followed up The Invisible Wall with 2008’s The Dream, a memoir of his family leaving England and coming to America. This year saw the release of The Golden Willow, the story of his life with Ruby, a romance that lasted 70 years.