A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman
|A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A tale of a second generation American trying to remain loyal to his Russian Jewish family while embracing the new culture they've all migrated to. It's a lot of things – fun, brash, hectic, poignant and the sort of debut that doesn't feel like one.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: September 2014|
|External links: Author's website|
On the day that Slava's Russian Jewish grandmother is buried in their new homeland of the US, a letter arrives from the German Conference on Material Claims Against Germany offering her financial restitution for her war years spent in a concentration camp. All she would have needed to do would be to write a letter about her whereabouts and experiences during World War II. It's too late for her but Slava's granddad wants Slava to complete the form in his grandfather's name instead. The fact that Slava's granddad was never in a German concentration camp is immaterial; surely Slava could write something? He's a journalist after all and his granddad did suffer during the war; every Jew in Minsk suffered. This put's Slava's filial devotion to the test but little does he know it's only the beginning.
Boris Fishman is, on paper, the go-to-guy if you fancy a story about Russian Jewish émigrés in America. He was born in Minsk (now capital of Belarus) in 1979, moving to the US with his family in 1988. His writing credentials include short stories and journalistic pieces in such esteemed publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Book Review. So the fact he's chosen such a subject for this, his debut novel, should make those in the know take notice. Indeed it has, mainly because it's so good.
Boris' fast moving style reflects the feel of the family with whom he acquaints us. We quickly warm to Slava, the twenty-something wannabe journalist who works for a magazine for which he's only allowed to write captions. However this is America so he holds onto his dream. New world aside, he's also rooted in the Russian Jewish community whose culture and memories have more to do with past times and the old country. He's therefore split between modernity and the customs and thought processes that have anchored his elders for centuries.
These memories aren't all happy. Gradually the pasts of Slava's grandparents and their contemporaries are revealed. These are the survivors of the Minsk ghetto and the Russian pogroms; people whom the Russians and the German military treated with equal contempt and cruelty.
We've heard from other sources similar wartime tales to the ones revealed here but Boris creates an environment of words in which we're shocked by them afresh, as we should be if we claim to retain even an ounce of humanity. It also helps us to empathise with Slava's plight. These are people to whom Slava feels he owes something. Unfortunately the something they're asking of him is illegal.
Boris is not giving us as sob-fest though. There is a wonderful thread of Jewish humour that permeates the novel. We smile at how Rudolf Kozlovich first financed his grave plot business as much as we marvel at his ingenuity and sales technique. And then there's Boris' own phrasing. For instance, of Slava's granddad's carer he writes:
Like a Soviet high rise, each floor of Berta was stuffed beyond capacity.
This is also a story of romantic love as much as familial. Slava's desire to keep his American girlfriend as opposed to his grandfather's friend's granddaughter further encapsulates the way he straddles cultures.
By the time we reach the end we realise that the letter to the German authorities is just a vehicle in which Boris facilitates our travel into a different, quirky, rewarding world. It's not something we'd complain about though; trust me – it's well worth the journey.
(Thank you to the good folk at One, for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If this appeals we also recommend a listed book from 2013's Man Booker prize, the bitter-sweet story of The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman at Amazon.com.
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