GIVEAWAY: 3 copies of At The Breakfast Table – Büyükada (ISTANBUL)
No-One is here except all of us
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical
Era(s): 1939 onwards
The novel opens with a brief poetic prelude voiced by a woman cradling an infant in her arms: “It began in 1939, at the northern edge of Romania, on a small peninsula cupped by a muddy river. The days then were still and peaceful.” Nine Jewish families called the river valley, in the Carpathian Mountains, home. “Our village was complete and so were our lives within it: our ghosts were quiet under the earth and we were quiet above it.”
From here, the narrative is taken over by 11-year-old Lena, the youngest of three children of a cabbage farmer, who tells the story of her village and how its people reinvented the world as menace loomed.
The imagery in the early chapters brings to mind Marc Chagall’s optimistic and serene paintings of village life in Russia: goats, fiddlers, rabbis, brides, the tree of life. “In our village,” Lena says, “all of us – mothers and fathers, grandparents and children, uncles and great-aunts, the butcher, baker, saddlemaker, cobbler, wheat cutter, cabbage farmer – stood in circles around our tables and lit candles while we blanketed the room in prayer.”
The first intimations of change come as everyone gathers for Sabbath. The village healer, who presides, opens a newspaper with the headline “war. 11 am, september 3rd, 1939.” As the adults react with fear, Lena wonders, “What if I die? . . . What if I don’t grow up?” The healer reads the opening passages of the Book of Genesis, his words “a familiar river.” But soon he is interrupted – Lena sees a silver airplane pass overhead, then hears “a thundering, time-stopping boom.” Later that evening, the villagers find their river overflowing with trout, as well as with other treasures: “two bowls, one jewelry box full of mud, a doll with no legs, a matted sweater, some cut logs, a hand-drawn map of the summer constellations smudged but readable, and a woman. A woman – hair, teeth, feet, fingers all. And she was alive.”
As the villagers comfort and feed the woman, she describes how her village was destroyed by soldiers, her mother, sister, husband and children tortured and killed. The villagers panic. What to do? “We start over,” says the stranger, who has witnessed the worst and lost all. “When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.”
Through some mystical connection, Lena and the stranger help the villagers imagine their way out of reality into a fresh beginning.
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