In this magical realist novel set in 1920s Germany, a young Jewish woman inexplicably bonds with the Hindu god Ganesha.
Esther Grünspan is 17 when she first moves to Köln, Germany, from her hometown in Poland, where her fiance recently failed to show up to their wedding. She starts a new life in her new city as a talented seamstress. However, this life is withdrawn and lonely, as she barely interacts with anyone, although she’s avidly trying to learn how to speak German to achieve “business success.” Even with her own family members, who visit and send letters, Esther is cold and difficult to connect with. One day, while walking through the Rheinpark, she spots a wooden stand decorated with “vibrant, garish colors” and images unfamiliar to her. She becomes fixated with one image in particular—an “elephant-headed man.” The memory of this figure sticks with Esther, who begins to doubt if it was even real. She’s actually fixated on the Hindu god Ganesha, who has similarly bonded with Esther, as revealed through his own italicized narration, interspersed throughout the novel. Later, she navigates marriage and motherhood, but she never forgets her Rheinpark memory, and Ganesha watches out for her with wisdom and love. As years pass, anti-Semitism in the city becomes more rampant, and Esther begins to obsess over India. Her decision to travel to Ganesha’s home ultimately results in an emotional, enlightening revelation. Over the course of this debut novel, Teitelman paints an intensely beautiful world in which different cultures merge in surprising ways. Although it centers on what may seem like an odd pairing—a Jewish mortal and a Hindu god—the novel weaves the two characters together in a very natural way, as Esther, withdrawn from those around her, is shown to need Ganesha as a protective, loving companion. Teitelman’s deft execution as she explores this relationship is a major factor in why this unusual novel works so well. Throughout, her writing shows a finesse that’s as compelling as the story it presents, employing a lyrical prose style when focusing on Ganesha and a more decadent tone during Esther’s parts.
A rich and moving story about an unlikely pair.