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The World To Come, Dara Horn, W W Norton & Company, 2006, 310 pp
Oh my, what this book put me through! Elation, wonder, perplexity, depression and back to a cautious wonder. It is jam packed with 20th century Jewish history, art, Yiddish literature, families with mysterious pasts, and perhaps the strangest philosophy of life I have ever encountered.
The story centers on Benjamin Ziskind and his twin sister Sara. They had that bond that twins often have in childhood but it has weakened in adulthood. Ben was a child prodigy who now writes questions for a quiz show. He was the boy who knew too much. Sara is a painter, an optimist in contrast to the depression that trails Ben like a smoky miasma. Their mother was a renowned author of children's picture books. Their dad died of lung cancer when the twins were still quite young.
When Ben, recently divorced, steals a small Chagall painting from a museum exhibit, a painting he is sure hung in their home when he was a child, he opens up a Pandora's Box of memories he and his sister barely knew they had.
Immediately after the museum incident, the story jumps to an orphanage in Communist era Russia, where both Chagall and a famous Yiddish writer share a house and teach at the school for the displaced Jewish orphans. This leaping back and forth in time eventually reveals the story of the Ziskind family, one of the saddest stories I have read in a genre full of sadness.
I have read Michael Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, I B Singer, and many other Jewish writers and was looking forward to reading Dara Horn, but she took me on an emotional journey that left me enervated and depressed for quite a few days. I was thrust into my memories of certain losses I have had over the past decade or so, or else my hormones were acting up.
Near the end of the book, there is a long scene set in the author's idea of heaven, perhaps based on some Yiddish tales. She attempts to explain the meaning of the book's title, The World To Come. I generally have trouble with anyone's conception of heaven. While I realize they are all products of human imagination, this one was one of the more outlandish versions I have come across and yet it had a certain fascination for me. I wondered if perhaps she meant it to be a balance to all the sadness.
Last month, after our discussion of The Sympathizer, my Tiny Book Club felt we needed a break from the heavy fare we had been reading lately. After our lunch at Xioa, an especially good Vietnamese restaurant in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, we stopped across the street to browse in the equally wonderful Stories Books. We came across this book and thought that a mystery about a stolen Chagall painting might be a delightful and lighter read.
We could not have been more wrong. The other two members purely hated the book, the writing, and the way the story was told. I am not sorry I read it and had to admire the sheer imaginative nature of the author. But I thanked them for dispelling my depression as they ripped the novel to shreds. So, read this one at your own risk!
Ah, the life of a woman who reads too much.
(The World To Come is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)