A woman is drawn inexorably deeper into her father’s past as a World War II refugee in Redel’s second novel.
Sara Leader, a New York professor, has a substantial to-do list for the summer of 2003: She needs to complete the bottomless pile of paperwork required to adopt a baby from overseas, get moving on a translation of books and papers by influential German philosopher Walter Benjamin and keep a watchful eye on her elderly father, Richard, a Belgian-born Jew who narrowly escaped the death camps. Sara’s awareness of her father’s past is vague at best; Richard (born Itzak Lejdel) has successfully repelled his daughter’s attempts to learn more about his passage into the U.S. The reader is in on the secret, though: Sara’s story is interspersed with the letters Itzak wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in September 1940, when he was trapped in U.S. docks aboard a European refugee ship, the Quanza. Amid his descriptions of his first love, his broken-up family and his narrow escape from German-occupied Europe, he emerges as a tender and bright 17-year-old who made more sacrifices than he ever confessed to his daughter. There are strong parallels between Sara’s father and Walter Benjamin, who killed himself in September 1940, despairing of crossing the French-Spanish border and escaping the Nazis, but Redel (Loverboy, 2001) doesn’t oversell that connection, nor does this story become a simplistic tale of father-daughter bonding. Instead, its best moments contain lucid observations about the struggle to uncover family secrets, and to understand the depths of self-hatred and fear that war generates. Other portions of the novel are less convincing: Sara’s relationship with a married man (and her increasing attraction to another suitor) is thinly depicted, as is her relationship with her best friend, who mechanically dispenses tough love at every turn.
Still, within the confines of its father-daughter story, a powerful essay on the instinct to both keep and reveal family secrets.