AMBASSADOR OF THE DEAD by Askold Melnyczuk


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Second-novelist Melnyczuk (What Is Told, 1994, not reviewed) offers a full-fleshed tale of immigrant life, the cost of assimilation, and the time-stopping death-grip—on some—of the catastrophe that was WWII in eastern Europe.

Imagine Elizabeth, New Jersey, just after WWII, and life there in a poor but close-knit neighborhood among people from Ukraine, displaced persons now making new lives in America and raising families. The son of one such family, Nick Blud, serves as Melnyczuk's narrator, telling his own story—he's now married and a medical doctor in Boston—and the story, even more importantly, of his next-door neighbors in Elizabeth, Ada Kruk and her two sons Paul and Alex. And such a story. Ada is a beauty around whom all kinds of mysteries swirl and that deepen more than diminish as Nick, through his friendship with Ada's younger son Alex, learns more about her. Bit by bit, in one unfolding after another, both reader and Nick learn more about both present and past. The past is what will have the stronger grip, and it's the past that will bring son Paul, Vietnam veteran, to his pitiful end, and Alex, later on, to his even worse one. What could have happened to make Ada into a habitual dweller in the once-was and a communicant with the dead—even with her tiny sister Nina, whose life was only a few days long? In the center of Melnyczuk's novel is a glorious gem in the form of a novella ostensibly written by Anton, a poet long (and hopelessly) in love with Ada. In "Anton's" novella, Ada comes alive from early girlhood, and so do, then, the unspeakable atrocities that befell her doomed family and that were never to leave her, or her own later family, ever.

Though the telling goes soft now and then, and the words too many, Melnyczuk's achievement, overall, is sustained, powerful, lamentable, and moving.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 1-58243-132-9
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2001