Last week I tried to give a brief synopsis of this book to a friend and found it quite tricky.
“Well,” I said, “there’s this guy, Benjamin Ziskind, who steals a Chagall painting off the wall of a New York Jewish art museum because it originally belonged to his family but had to be sold after his father died, ”I paused, “and, well, from this event the book weaves together the stories of Ziskind, his parents, this woman he likes, his sister, her husband, and Chagall, who gave the painting to Ziskind’s grandfather in the first place.” Again, I had to pause. “And, well, by the end it gets really weird, mixing together Russian folklore and history to describe the point of view of a child in the womb.” I wanted to tell the friend about this book because I thought that it would appeal to her – the way that it moved effortlessly, coherently and justifiably between worlds.
The world of Benjamin Ziskind, a miserable, recently divorced, once-child-prodigy, now unfulfilled creator of quiz show questions. The world of his grandfather, Boris’ childhood in communist Russia, where he was privy to atrocities and poverty each day, until being taken to a Jewish Boys’ Orphanage where Chagall taught art. The world of Ziskind’s mother, Rosalie, a children’s book writer and illustrator who watched her father Boris being arrested for his activity on the Zionist Committee. The world of Sara, Ziskind’s twin sister who has such a talent for painting that she can perfectly forge a Chagall. The world of Daniel, Sara’s unborn child, who is being fed books and paintings like food and wine, by his dead ancestors who are preparing him for “the world to come.”
Yes, there is a whimsical element to this book, which will not appeal to everyone. If the idea of taking Russian folklore and making parts of it real causes you to roll your eyes, this book may well disappoint you. However, if such a notion sounds exciting and delightful, it is likely to be your cup of tea, so long as you can take gritty realism with your whimsy. That is one of the unusual and captivating things about this novel – it flicks, not just between characters, time frames, and places at the drop of a hat, but also between tones. For example, you will be reading a fanciful excerpt from one of Rosalie Ziskind’s children’s books, then quite suddenly find yourself reading a vivid passage about Rosalie’s husband falling on a bamboo spike trap during the Vietnam war and losing a leg. The speed and elegance with which Horn moves from setting to setting is comparable to the style of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, another sprawling novel, bursting at the seams with mystery, romance, grit and whimsy.
This is the sort of novel that is read too quickly, because the reader wants to find out what will happen. I made this mistake and finished the book feeling breathless and perplexed, ‘surely it’s not over already’, I thought, ‘surely Horn hasn’t tied everything up’. But she had. I found, reading back through the last pages that I’d rushed, she’d managed to finish every one of her many character’s stories in a logical, satisfying manner. So, I recommend this book, on the condition that you read it slowly and appreciate it for the startling and wonderful thing that it is.