Immigrant story

2008-05-14 00:00

Away, Amy Bloom’s first novel in eight years, will not disappoint her fans, of which I am one. It is a beautifully crafted story which marries historical fact with fiction.

Lillian Leyb is one of the many immigrants who flock to New York in 1924. She takes with her very little except the brutal memories of the murder of her family during one of the Russian pogroms.

Lillian’s nights are marred by dreams of her parents’ and husband’s brutal murders. But what haunts her even more is the disappearance of her four-year-old daughter Sophie. Lillian had helped Sophie flee, to safety, Lillian thought. But when the brutality was over, Sophie was nowhere to be found. After searching for months, Lillian eventually takes an opportunity of a passage to New York to stay with a relative.

Like many other new immigrants, she shares bed space in a tiny room until she catches the eye of the theatre impressario, Reuben Burnstein. Burnstein’s son finds Lillian a useful companion too and soon sets her up in a small apartment where she can be a successful cover for his homosexual tendencies. Reuben Burnstein also takes this opportunity to acquire another mistress. And both Lillian and he are surprised when they fall in love.

Life seems perfectly safe again for Lillian as she works as a theatre seamstress by day and sleeps with either father or son at night. Until her cousin Raisele arrives with news that Sophie escaped with a childless couple and is alive in Siberia. Lillian has no choice. She has to go to Siberia to find her daughter. Without money or friends Lillian travels the breadth of the U.S. and Bloom uses historical fact to make a captivating background to a woman’s almost futile search. It’s as compelling a tale as The Old Man of the Sea, and even if Lillian doesn’t land a marlin, she doesn’t end up empty-handed either. This is a masterful story, written by an author at the height of her powers.

Janet van Eeden

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