First published in 1973 by a small Canadian press, this autobiographical debut novel, from the Montreal-based Charney, renders the extraordinary events of a childhood in post-WW II Poland in a dispassionate, affectless voice. By the time the narrator turns five, she's spent half her life in a hayloft, huddling with a group of Polish Jews who are hiding from the Germans. Now freed by a patrol of kindly Russian soldiers, the child is shocked and delighted by the world she'd forgotten: She thrills to the feeling of the wind, the fragrance of grain. Returning with her mother and aunt to Dobryd, their former hometown, they find the place in ruins but settle into what becomes a bustling community of survivors. Meanwhile, the girl's aunt reminisces about the family's former great wealth, the young anarchists and communists who kept prewar life in Dobryd lively, and the narrator's mother's desperate escape from the about-to-be- liquidated Jewish ghetto to the hayloft haven. Amid these occasionally disturbing stories, the narrator tries on life as a ``normal'' child, losing herself in play with other kids and observing with semidetachment the emotional fragility of her mother and aunt. Charney's novel covers unusual ground: It explores the possibility of happiness in a setting of devastating loss and reveals a hungry childhood spirit that seeks identity and fulfillment, despite the fact that those around her are numb with grief. This child's-eye-view of a world without innocence is momentarily arresting, but readers are kept at an enforced arm's length: While newcomer Charney successfully avoids sentimentalism, her controlled tone robs the story of its immediacy. In all, a frustratingly clinical take on a fertile subject.
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