When Fanny Keismann turns ten, her father, Grodno’s ritual slaughterer, gives her a knife, and she soon develops a talent for her father’s trade. But in nineteenth-century Russia, ritual slaughter does not befit a wife and mother, so when it comes time to marry and raise a family, Fanny abandons her work and devotes herself to raising her five children.
When Fanny’s older sister’s husband disappears, Fanny leaves her own family and sets out for the great city of Minsk in search of her wayward brother-in-law, armed with her old knife and accompanied by Zizek Bershov, who is either a sly rogue or an idiot. Fanny’s mission to help her sister turns into a misadventure that threatens the foundations of the Russian Empire. What began as a family matter in Motol, a peripheral Jewish settlement, breaks the bounds of the shtetl, pits the police against the Czar’s army, and upsets the political and social order they all live in.
I’m entirely sure what this book is – is it straightforward historical fiction, a family saga, a crime novel?? It’s all of these and more.
The blurb doesn’t do it justice at all. There’s dozens of stories fitted into one over-arching narrative – that of Fanny Keismann looking for her errant brother-in-law in order to help her sister.
Almost every character’s entire life story will be told, battles will be conjured in the air, men and women will die, people will find themselves in strange situations and a very thin man will eat a lot of food.
The writing crackles and sparks, several languages are spoken by the characters and you wonder how they all make themselves understood – although misunderstanding is one of the books many themes.
The power of words is vital, from letters sent from the front, newspaper advertisements, the fact that a mixture of Yiddish, Russian and Polish are spoken, various polemics are written and ignored, the Torah gets quoted a fair bit, and everyone spends all their time exaggerating or not explaining.
For all that the action takes place in about a fortnight, it spans some characters’ lifetimes in explaining who they are and how they became mixed up in all the chaos Fanny is leaving in her wake.
This is an impressive, strong book about a remarkable woman, not just for her time and place, but for every reader who meets her.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in this blog tour but all opinions remain my own.