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Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"

A brilliant portrayal of the sufferings of Hungarian Jews during WW II, seen through the raucous and often comic prism of a small boy's stubbornly independent spirit. Jozsef Sondor, six years old in 1938, is living in the rural village of Oszu with his grandfather. Jozsef is separated from his mother and older brother who struggle to survive in Budapest, the family having been abandoned by their father, a successful playwright who will communicate only sporadically with his wife and children throughout the coming war years. Young Jozsef, refreshingly unlike the conventional sensitive protagonist of novels of this kind, is a rude hell-raiser who's often hilariously disrespectful to his elders and instructors. When the danger of invasion forces Jozsef to rejoin his mother and brother, he's ripped away from the comparative calm of village life and thrust into a maelstrom of psychic and moral disturbance that changes him radically as his understanding of what the group will face together increases. Nyiri, who's written one previous novel (Steps, published in 1979 in England), surrounds his young protagonist with dozens of vividly drawn, importantly involved secondary characters and patiently, movingly shows how ritual mistreatment of Jews, exacerbated by the war's unfolding horrors, initially affects Jozsef's childish pastimes (his ""playgrounds""), then slowly assumes fuller form in his consciousness and shapes his embattled growth. This wonderfully detailed novel observes the experience of the Holocaust in numerous fresh, pleasingly oblique ways (e.g., an old woman's plaintive question, ""How will they treat cats that have belonged to Jews?""). This has the feel of a book that has been thought about and worked on for much of a lifetime. It's a wonder not to be missed.