Caging Skies by Christine Leunens (2008)


L: 3.5/10

M: 4/10


Analysis from a souvenir 7-11 Slurpee cup from that Hulk movie with Eric Bana:

To say I had lofty expectations when selecting Caging Skies would be putting it lightly. I tend to swing for the fences, calling my shot often here. Half of my picks are things that I’ve read long ago, knowing a second read will be just as sweet. Other picks are adaptations of things I already love. It’s not the most honest and bold way of choosing items, and perhaps this is a sign from above or more likely below, warning me to change my ways and be more daring. Maybe I need to go outside the comfort zone and pick some risky items. Perhaps after we get through the onslaught of books already purchased and chosen, waiting patiently in the wings.

As a side project, I’ve been reviewing a movie a day for the better part of five months now, an accomplishment that will go unnoticed in the fables of time but will surely be a pleasant walk through fond memories one day. Serving solely as a vehicle to watch movies I have never gotten around to seeing, such as the Matrix’sLord of the Rings, and Star War’s of the movie-verse, the project quickly turned into seeing how many Nic Cage movies I could watch or a deep dive in the DC Comics Universe. Before all that, though, I was catching up on 2019’s Oscar-nominated films and was delighted to accidentally watch Jojo Rabbit. I didn’t know much of the film, and before its Oscar showing, it had yet to gather buzz. The film still stands as one of my favorite movies that I’ve reviewed, and one of the top films that I can remember ever seeing. I thought the book adaptation would be a home run.

Caging Skies and the film Jojo Rabbit are two completely different concepts. While the first half of the book can serve as a skeleton to the loosely fitting adapted screenplay skin, the second half of Caging Skies is an absolutely different entity altogether. I wanted to hang on, I really did. Chapter after chapter just continued to pile on to a feeling that I didn’t want to experience. I love dread. I live for bleak. Melancholy is a color that I gravitate towards. The first half of the story sets up a real promise of a tricky situation that was sure to have something worth reading naturally come from the premise. Instead, it hovered for an eternity in a location that I kept hoping would just move on from.

The first half tells a story of a young boy growing up in Austria, captivated in a world at war, but unfortunately playing for the losing side. Johannes enlists in the war effort at a young age and is gruesomely injured. During his rehabilitation, he discovers that his parents are both part of the resistance, and hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa, within the walls. A relationship is established between the two, serving as eyes to both dramatically different sides of the war. Johannes is very early on orphaned as the German side of the fight starts to fall, and he is left to take care of his elderly grandma and the young girl, unknown and forgotten.

The second half of Caging Skies is a test to see how long you can hold out hope. I don’t want to compare my reading of a book to the survival of a prisoner of war, but let’s just say it wasn’t an easy read. I kept thinking of Seinfeld episodes, where a simple misunderstanding or lie would snowball when a simple explanation or conversation would clear the air and set things straight. Jerry wasn’t picking his nose! He was just scratching the side of his face! Elaine never read the manuscript for that job interview, and she could have probably explained her situation and gotten some more time. At some point, Johannes should have just come clean. I understand that the lie kept compounding interest upon itself until no clear exit strategy could be set in motion, but come already. Chapters and chapters fall into a sinkhole of a lie that lasts years and effectively takes away a life that, by some miracle, was spared from being a war casualty.

The worst part about the endless build-up is the pay off is a sputter that slips by without any gravity. Johannes and Elsa move on with their terrible situation until he finally tells her enough half-truths to equal the sum of her wasted youth. I held out hope that the ending would make the slog worth it, and none of that hope was paid off.

That being said, there were still moments in Caging Skies that will remain with me for a while. It continues to be fascinated that the movie and the book can exist on the same basis. A recent interview in Stuff explains that screenplay author Taika Waititi described the film to author Leunens as, “It’s still your baby, it just has different clothes.” I couldn’t agree more. While I believe both results are essential to wrapping your brain around the horror that what was WWII, Caging Skies just failed to hit the same notes.

Analysis from that one t-shirt with random holes and stains from home hair dye gone wrong:

I had such high hopes for this book! L encouraged me to watch the movie, so I gathered my family and watched and LOVED JoJo Rabbit. The movie was cleverly done, so witty, and surprisingly charming. It also allowed my history-buff husband to school my daughter on some WWII facts, so basically, a good time was had by all.

THEN I READ THE BOOK.

The first half of the book was fine. It was interesting, and I felt the character development was spot on. I thought perhaps I had found a new author to fangirl over, but the sentiment didn’t last long. If I’m honest, it is pretty difficult to even remember details about the book’s first half because it feels like I read it months ago. I do recall having a difficult time stopping at our agreed-upon chapters because I just wanted to find out more. I liked the pace and rhythm of Leunen’s writing, and though I had seen the movie, I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. Sadly, that feeling did not linger. In my opinion, Caging Skies hit all the right notes and would have been a perfectly enjoyable book had it ended with the war. That, however, was not the case, and we were lead down a tedious journey of life after war with no real insight or payoff.

The second half of the book was, to put it bluntly, dreadful, and entirely unnecessary. The dynamic between Johannes and Elsa never reached a peak or a valley yet lingered on this never-ending plateau of bitterness, codependency, and pseudo-love. Should he have come clean and let her choose her path for the future? Yes. Should she have been less of a miserable bitch towards him? Yes. Should they have cut their losses and moved on? Yes. Here you have a boy who has lost his entire family to a terrible war, yet those dynamics that would have been so interesting to delve into were mere footnotes. Instead, the last half of the book is simply chapters after painful chapters of how Johannes loves Elsa and is afraid of losing her, so he has her trapped and Elsa, who most likely is aware of reality, torturing him by giving and taking away affection. There were never any new revelations or even much of a storyline once the war ended.

The ending was the only hope I had for the book, and when I tell you I was pissed, I was pissed. There was no payout for hours I spent on this book. There was no closure. She simply left. You don’t know the circumstances behind her leaving. Why did she go? How did she go? Where did she go? As if that isn’t enough, the story CONTINUES! He rents a room. He gets sick. He goes crazy. What the damn hell, Christine?? Did you just get drunk and keep typing and then realize, “Oh, I should go ahead and wrap this up.”

Have you ever had someone tell you in agonizing detail about a dream they had the night before? This is that in book form. Most of it is irrelevant, and practically all of it is uninteresting.


Christine Leunens

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