An illuminating coming-of-age memoir set in communist Hungary.
Born to a Jewish mother and Catholic father in 1940, Zsuzsa feels beloved and pampered. By late 1944, the family huddles in a tiny coal cellar with neighbors and listens to the bombs overhead as Nazis invade Budapest. They survive, only to face another type of prison: life under the Stalin regime and, later, the Russian occupation. As she moves through her childhood and teenage years, the precocious Zsuzsa offers cleareyed observations about her relationship with her parents (particularly her mother), friendships, schoolwork, theater and the discovery of boys, along with the struggles to find basics like food, clothing and shelter. Wild rumors fly amid the unexplained disappearances of teachers, family and friends, while arbitrary new government rules lead to nonstop pressure. The contrast of the ordinary and extraordinary creates a fascinating tension. Instead of normal summer camp in the woods, Zsuzsa attends Pioneer Camp at a crumbling mansion where she’s forced into night-guard duty. Instead of a full day of instruction, school hours include singing Red Army songs and marching and standing in formation. Vivid sensory details capture each experience, whether eating a juicy orange for the first time in years or listening to the clattering printing press where her journalist father works. Periodic short sentences and paragraphs cut to the painful truth: “School starts. Fourth grade. A completely new teacher appears.” The 100-plus short sections, organized chronologically, feel cohesive and well-paced, particularly after the opening pages, which provide the background of Zsuzsa’s parents. With its authentic voice and keen observations from a youthful narrator, the story evokes The Diary of Anne Frank. Secondary characters are briefly but vividly introduced and easy to differentiate. The particularly riveting last section offers the delightful paradox of wanting to read faster to reach the conclusion but slower to prolong the enjoyment.
An admirable debut memoir featuring both a compelling narrator and a captivating story.