Andrew Winer has written a potboiler that is also literary. Writing about such a serious subject as the Holocaust sometimes constricts a novelist into a more conventional form of storytelling/historical fiction. But as we have seen with such books as Frederick Reiken's Day for Night and Nicole Krauss's postmodern Great House, as well as Death as a narrator in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, the only unwritten rules are to grip the reader in a credible story and to edify through words. Winer has done both, and he puts his unique stamp on it with his fluid, page-turning, thriller style blended with his out-of-the-box imagination and mellifluous prose. Like Plath did so craftily with The Bell Jar, Winer will reach a wider audience by his hewing of the elevated with the pedestrian. Saul Bellow meets Stephen King. I applaud his ambitious style, which he succeeded with on many levels.
"...the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us..."
Two stories parallel and merge, reaching forward in one, backward in the other, fusing in a transmigration of redemption. One starts in 1928 Vienna, a time when the Jews, once so integral to the art and intellectual community, are being persecuted. Some Jews, such as the novel's Pick family, have converted to Catholicism in order to assimilate (which I say with irony, as assimilation in this case was more like betrayal to one's faith) and garner financial success without oppression. Young Josef Pick, the son of converts, visits his Jewish grandfather Pommeranz in the very poor Jewish district and begins his career as a ketubah artist, or "marriage artist."
The second storyline is the one that opens the novel in modern times. A highly acclaimed native American (Blackfoot) artist, Benjamin Wind, has plunged to his death with the wife of an esteemed art critic, Daniel Lichtmann, whose glorious accolades to Wind made the sculptor famous. Aleksandra Lichtmann, a beautiful, seductive survivor of Russian anti-semitism, was a woman of rare charm and dauntless courage, a woman who spoke her mind resolutely and with artless candor. Her husband, Daniel, is heartbroken and suffused with guilt for falling into an emotional detachment with her (for reasons I won't go into--readers will want to see the details revealed on their own). This is further complicated by the fact that their marriage is a second marriage for both of them.
In Jewish tradition, a ketubah is a document, one that is fundamental to the traditional Jewish marriage and is a form of Jewish ceremonial art. It outlines the responsibilities of the groom to the bride and is written in Aramaic, the vernacular of Talmudic times. (I strongly recommend that readers google ketubah images in order to see the stunning, detailed artwork involved.) The ketubah is also fundamental to the themes and storylines of this novel.
Josef Pick, at age ten, becomes immediately arrested by the poignancy and beauty of ketubot art and, with a mythical and mystical spirit, is imbued with an aesthetic grace that permeates him and allows him to create a ketubah, largely influenced by his childhood desire for his feuding parents to fall back in love. He eclipses his grandfather's talent and is soon mentored by him. Pommeranz, who earns few schillings blessing fowl and meat, becomes a Jewish star with his grandson. The storyline with Josef continues into adulthood, highlighting his relationship with his lifelong friend, Max Weiner, and Josef's wife, Hannah, a complex and triangulating trio of passion and suffering. This story takes us into the terror of the Holocaust.
Daniel is determined to uncover the seeds of this tragedy. Were Aleksandra and Benjamin having an affair? Were they unhappy, filled with guilt, or did someone push them? The police haven't found any clues to a crime, and Daniel commences to investigate on his own. This leads him into his own crimes of the heart as well as important details of his wife's history and the provenance of Benjamin's ethnic roots. Wind's artwork is explored with exquisite sympathy and philosophical mien and woven into a deep abyss of pain, symmetry, and expression. This storyline also leads back into the marrow of the Holocaust, which gives the novel its quintessence. Two artists from two generations bifurcate and meld. The reader is pulled into an intricate labyrinth of lies and love, horror and shame, betrayal and faithfulness.
Winer's prose is masterful, with a restrained floridity that anoints the story with poetic lyricism. This is the second review I have written that compels me to allude to Flaubert's mot juste, the ability to find the exact right word or expression. His metaphors and imagery are scintillating and prolific, and I will dare to say orgasmic.
"She laughed at him with an unbearable harshness. The laughter spread across her features like a fast-moving storm front, until it was all darkness."
In describing a created ketubah:
"...first as blooming yellow florets in a tussock of dandelions and then as gossamer ball angels raised by the wind to the impure geometry of the living...the sky is a fabric of seraphic, thickly flowered souls whispering advice at its edges."
There are flaws. Winer tends to telegraph events, but he is one of the few authors I know who can make exposition emotional, stirring. Some plot turns are too quick and convenient, preventing the reader from forming his or her own conclusions, or from finding the spaces between the words. When Winer is describing art, it is exalting, and it moves the reader to interpret and have a go at personal translation within his own. But with the plot, he intermittently spells out too much information, and truncates some elements of the story. And some components (which feed the potboiler aspect) are a bit contrived and overwrought, and I had to wince, especially the emergence of another, later romance in the book that felt inorganic.
In a lesser author, these blemishes would have decreased my overall satisfaction. But, despite this criticism, there is something about the whole here transcending the sum of its parts, (and I am not condescending in this observation) and the parts interlocking in a resonant and finally delicate and ecstatic way that moved me to accept the warts and come away with my heart on fire and my senses roused to tears. This is a highly engaging, memorable, exuberant, and yes, even boisterous and entertaining Holocaust and modern tragedy tale.
This review is based on a complementary advanced reading copy I received from the publisher.