A bittersweet fable of war and survival set in a Romanian shtetl.
Like Chagall’s art, charming or cloying depending on taste, Ausubel’s fanciful novel employs an intensely imaginative style both to evoke Zalischik, a remote Jewish settlement in 1939, and also to fuel her story. As news of the encroaching anti-Semitic terrors filters into the village via the horrific experience of a half-drowned stranger, the community tries to hold the world at bay with its imagination while cutting itself off from external contact. The narrator, 11-year-old Lena, must endure a parallel delusion. Given by her loving parents to her barren aunt and uncle, she is pushed rapidly through the stages of childhood again as her partly-deranged new parents teach her to talk and walk, then arrange marriage to Igor, the banker’s son. Happiness and children follow, but the village’s isolation can’t last. After Igor is taken prisoner, Lena flees into the woods where her baby dies and farmers offer her an impossible choice. Returning to Zalischik where she learns the fate of her people, she finally turns to a future in the New World.
Ausubel’s sustained, idiosyncratic take on the Holocaust is double-edged, alternating affecting heartache with sentimental poetic overkill. Opinion may be divided, but there’s an undeniable element of talent here.