Our member Rena Alisa writes:
This is a poignant, heartbreaking new work by “one of the best novelists alive” (Irving Howe)—the story of a lonely older man and his devoted young caretaker who transform each other’s lives in ways they could never have imagined.
Ernst is a gruff seventy-year-old Jewish Red Army veteran from Ukraine who landed, almost by accident, in Israel after World War II. A retired investment adviser, he lives alone (his first wife and baby daughter were killed by the Nazis; he divorced his shrewish second wife) and spends his time laboring over his unpublished novels. He has no children.
Irena, in her mid-thirties, is the unmarried daughter of Holocaust survivors and has been taking care of Ernst since his surgery two years earlier. Quiet and shy, Irene is in awe of Ernst’s intellect. As the months pass, Ernst comes to depend on the gentle young woman who runs his house, listens to him read from his work, and occasionally offers a spirited commentary on it.
Ernst’s writing gives him no satisfaction, and he is haunted by his godless, Communist past and his Jewish self-hatred. His health, already poor, begins to deteriorate even further; he becomes mired in depression and seems to lose the will to live. But this is something Irena will not allow. As she becomes an increasingly important part of his life—moving into his home, encouraging him in his work, easing his pain—Ernst not only regains his sense of self and discovers the path through which his writing can flow but he also discovers, to his amazement, that Irena is in love with him. And, even more astonishing, he realizes that he is in love with her, too.
Because of Irena, Ernst is able to reconnect with his memories of his religious grandparents. He is finally able to understand their faith and love of God and of him. Ernst is able to re-experience the summers he spent in the mountain village where his grandparents worked their land and immersed themselves in Jewish practice. Slowly, these memories and emotions relieve him of his anger and self-hatred.
The above are the “facts” of the plot. Appelfeld’s beautiful lyrical style is much harder to describe, He writes from the internal perspective of his characters. The reader is completely drawn into the thoughts and emotions of Ernst and Irena. As I read, I felt and experienced Ernst’s and Irena’s thoughts and emotion directly. He causes you to experience the interior life of his characters. That is Appelfeld’s special gift.
Note: The audio version (from Audible.conn) is magnificently read.