This is a novel that manages to remind the reader of the emotional turmoil of adolescence while providing a remarkably prescient snapshot of Czechoslovakia in 1935--Hostovsky has no illusions that war can be avoided or that Jews will be spared. Hostovsky does all of this and in language that is creative yet spare enough to make this a short, compact, novel.
The main character is a 15-year-old who spends sleepless nights mulling over his choice of a career, brooding over his appearance which for the first time bothers him as he meets his older sister's girlfriend, or just being perplexed over why his mother doesn't entertain the same feelings for his father as he does for the wickedly beautiful young guest in his house.
The protagonist could just as easily be the town itself, where a mysterious arsonist, or even arsonists, strikes and forces people to confront their own sense of anxious terror.
It is confronting this terror that brings the town's -- and our young anti-hero's -- story to as much of a satisfactory but incomplete and short-lived story as you can expect in real life.
There are no happy endings all round here--a poor barber whose wife dies then loses everything else, first his house and livelihood, then his mind and his health. Yet Hostovsky seems to spare him no pity, or maybe he's just making the point--if you think that's sad, see what's coming.
The book came as a relief after I read a rash of novels by Booker Prize winners that were all, in comparison, cases of style with no substance. I would recommend it to any one looking for something a bit different and a refreshing change from all those polished but essentially run-of-the-mill bestsellers or crusty classics. It certainly renewed my ambition to travel to the Czech and Slovak republics one day.