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Novel set in 19th Century Tsarist Russia (Belarus, Poland)

3rd June 2020

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits, novel set in 19th century Tsarist Russia (Belarus, Poland).

Novel set in 19th Century Tsarist Russia

It is 1894 and Mende Speismann is struggling.  Her good-for-nothing husband abandoned Mende and her two girls ten months ago and disappeared off to find a better life elsewhere.  With no husband’s wages, Mende and her eldest daughter are forced to clean for wealthier residents of Motal.  As it nears Mende’s 26th birthday, her sister, Fanny, comes to take over Mende’s work so that she can have a day off and Mende, seized by some crazy impulse, sets off to the market.  She intends allowing herself just one treat out of her savings but ends up splurging the lot and, when she comes to her senses, discovers that no one is prepared to refund her money.  In despair, she takes Zizek Breshov’s boat across the river, but half way, she throws herself over the side meaning to take her life.

Fortunately, Mende recovers, but Fanny decides that she must take some drastic action to alleviate her sister’s plight. She leaves her own family and sets out for Minsk in search of her brother in law, persuading the town’s eccentric, Zizek Breshov, to accompany her.  Fanny is made of sterner stuff than her sister.  When she was only ten years old, her father (the slaughter man of the title) gave her a ritual slaughtering knife and Fanny quickly demonstrated great skill at the trade, so much so that she was known to her neighbours as the wild chayeh (beast).  Zizek and Fanny set out on their journey but are soon set upon by a band of robbers whom Fanny dispatches with lightning skill and complete sang-froid.  The brutal killings draw the attention of the head of the secret police, Piotr Novack, who pursues Fanny and Zizek, thinking that the crime is part of a plot against the Tsar.  A remarkable adventure follows.  Zizek and Fanny meet a host of odd characters; they are arrested, imprisoned and escape, again thanks to Fanny’s skill with her blade, but Fanny never loses sight of her mission – to locate her wayward brother in law.

This is a huge, sweeping tale filled with the most memorable and engaging characters.  Fanny is completely irrepressible and the reader finds themselves admiring her, even while recoiling in the face of her brutality. The growing relationship between Fanny and the silent and reclusive Zizek is intriguing and the portrayal of the unfortunate Piotr Novak, as he attempts to infiltrate the Jewish community, is delightful.

Iczkovits’ prose style is unique.  The novel is crammed with wonderful descriptions, with rich and detailed imagery, that sometimes seems tongue-in-cheek, almost slipping into black humour. He certainly gives the reader a real flavour of time and place.  This is a meandering, episodic narrative with many detours from the main tale, which could have proved irritating but, in fact, each detour is so intriguing that you’re happy to wander off track.

This is the kind of storytelling that you rarely meet with nowadays – a sheer delight from start to finish.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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