Csardas by Diane Pearson

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Csardas by Diane Pearson

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A sweeping intelligently written hist fict taking us through three generations and two world wars from a Hungarian perspective. A now familiar era freshened up via a different viewpoint and a beautifully paced narrative.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781857519

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Hungarian Jewish banker Zsigmond Ferenc rules his family with an iron fist. As a proud Hungarian he feels that he needs to maintain standards. His wife, Marta secretly gambles behind his back, his sparkling younger daughter Eva takes the heart of every man she meets (including his own) and his two sons need leadership and guidance. Then there's his eldest child, Amale who fears she will never fall in love which may be a disadvantage as he looks around for a fitting match. Although whatever their preoccupations may be at the moment everything in Hungary (and indeed Europe) is about to change; history's timings can be cruel and the advent of World War I is perhaps one of its cruellest. To say the Austro-Hungarian Empire won't be the same again is an understatement.

English author Diane Pearson is poacher turned gamekeeper in literary terms. She proceeded to build a well-respected career in publishing over four decades, culminating an 'Editor of the Year' award in 1994. Meanwhile, still accommodating work in this field, Diane wrote several short stories and six novels. Csardas itself (pronounced Chan-dash and named after the Hungarian national dance) was first published in 1975 when it sold over half-a-million copies. Eclectic young publishing house Head of Zeus, thinking it was time for a revival, has brought it out again and I can see why. This is good stuff!

Indeed this is a novel that bursts the assumption that family sagas need be overly light and similar to each other. While not having the gravitas of War and Peace (and we're grateful for that!) Diane draws us into an intelligently written, pacey tale relating eras we may feel we know, but not from the Hungarian angle.

The Ferenc girls are not only products of their family's place in society, they're chalk and cheese. Amale is the sensitive elder sister; plainer, less confident and therefore assuming she'll remain a spinster and a stranger to love, but love has other ideas. Eva, on the other hand, is the vivacious, selfish party girl. Beginning to sound like a literary cliché? That's just my lack of convincing vocabulary causing that effect. We're so quickly into the story that soon we realise it's anything but a cliché.

As the children grow to old age, they're joined by some colourful companions and, indeed, enemies. (Their feeble mother and bullying father aren't always on the side of the goodies either.) The most interesting progression is the development of Felix and his brother Adam, friends of the family whose mother spends all her time doting and planning for the former, while side-lining the latter. The joy of this is that we don't just experience a master class in character development, but Diane also incorporates the psychological causes and effects adding another layer of interest and authenticity, especially to the story of these two brothers as they sweep through the wars and what fate has in store for them.

We may think some things are obvious. For instance the 10 year age gap between the Ferenc girls and their brothers Josef and Leo is obviously a device to ensure hands-on involvement in both World War I and II. However all of their paths are packed with surprises raising this above the average 'what happened in the conflict' story.

Not only are we whisked away into an adventure, we are treated to some great snippets of information. As the action encompasses both horrors and triumphs I was surprised by the xenophobic leanings of the Ferencs' parents and their class. For instance they're aghast that Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by a Romanian – a subservient nationality. The Poles are also considered a subservient nationality, which goes on to cause problems in more areas than the ensuing European conflagration.

As well as Hungarian life views we're treated to some powerful images that will indeed stay with us and, again, not only on the battlefields. Those who enjoy romantic interludes are not left out, but this is also a novel for history lovers and those of us who felt that we'd grown out of family sagas. If they'd all been like this, we never would.

Thank you Head of Zeus for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: For more of the Hungarian experience we also heartily recommend The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.

Buy Csardas by Diane Pearson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Csardas by Diane Pearson at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Csardas by Diane Pearson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Csardas by Diane Pearson at Amazon.com.


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The Reviewer is mistaken: Gavril Princip, the killer of Franz Ferdinand & his wife in Sarajevo was not Romanian. He was a Bosnian Serb.

ÉVH-D, Ph.D.