A subtle, elegiac coming-of-age novel about catastrophe, grief and the persistence of everyday life.
In her stunning debut, Hermann explores the long-term ramifications of unassimilable tragedy in the life of young Ruby Bronstein. Ruby’s father is a Holocaust survivor who cannot remember most of his own childhood; as a young girl she is haunted by the contrast between her family’s warmth and closeness and her father’s silences and occasional withdrawal. Hermann approaches the familiar subject of the Holocaust and its legacies in a completely unexpected and original way, inflicting on her protagonist a series of tragedies that give readers the barest taste of what it means to face and survive unimaginable catastrophe. Early on, Ruby goes with her parents to the prison camp where her father was interred. The events and epiphanies of this sequence might be the crux of another novel, but instead, the trip is the last moment in Ruby’s life before she begins to lose one family member after another to madness and illness. The uncanny repetition of these traumas could easily have strayed into the territory of melodrama, but Hermann’s spare, taut prose strips the story of any sentimentality even as it tensely mirrors Ruby’s tamped-down emotions. The potential for melodrama is further mediated by the novel’s rigorous structure. A series of compressed episodes, any one of which could stand on its own as a short story, chronicle Ruby’s ordinary life as an adolescent and young woman: going to a new school, making and losing friends, experiencing her first crushes, savoring the joys of camp and the first years of college. They delicately illustrate the ways in which grief circumscribes her life and her ability to connect to those she loves, including her surviving family. The novel’s resolution doesn’t quite match the depth and complexity that precede it, but this is an easy fault to forgive in such a gorgeously readable meditation on mourning and survival.
Profound, poetic and original. Hermann is a young author to watch.