Pain, loss propel 2 U.S. ex-pats in this novel

Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Kenner; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; © 2017; 337 pages.

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – Edward, a Jewish man in his 70s, and Annie, a young married woman in her 30s, are brought together by a mutual acquaintance back in the United States, a woman who asked Annie to check in on the sickly Edward to see if he was okay.

Both of them, it turns out, are in terrible emotional pain brought about by deaths in their family.  For Edward, it was his daughter, who had suffered from multiple sclerosis, and his wife, who could not bear their loss.  For Annie, it was a brother, who found that liquor could not ease the pain of another sister’s accidental crippling, so committed suicide.

This older man and younger woman responded to their losses in different ways.  Edward, at the very least, wanted to force the truth out of his ex-son-in-law about the circumstances of his daughter’s death.  Annie, not having been able to help either her sister or her brother, became one of these people who need to prove their effectiveness by helping other people, even those who do not need or desire it.

Annie had come to Budapest with her Jewish husband Will, who believed he could make a fortune installing communications systems for the newly capitalistic, formerly communist Hungarians.  Edward came to track down his son-in-law, and to force a day of reckoning.

In a country which has long seemed to be a victim of history – in the 20th century alone Hungary was conquered by the German Nazis, and later by the Russian Communists – the meetings between Edward and Annie, and between Will and a would-be translator Stephen, are filled with suspicions and intrigue.  Who can trust whom in a city where others engaged in nefarious work can always blame the Gypsies, whose very name in Hungarian means “thief”?

Annie is drawn to the Gypsies, more correctly called the Roma.  She wants to help them, but doesn’t know how, just as when she was a child, she was incapable of protecting her sister from a wildly thrown baseball that smashed her in the head.  In a foreign country, with a strange language and where the people she met never seemed to look her in the eye, Annie lost her equilibrium.  When she and Will had moved there from the United States, she wanted to mix with the local people and refrain from joining the American colony.  Hungarians resisted her altruism; perhaps that was why she was willing to invest so much time into helping Edward.

As the novel proceeds unhurriedly to its conclusion, American readers glimpse Budapest through the eyes of both Annie and Edward.  Despite some bright facades, it is a very somber place – a perfect setting for this story.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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