The Lost Shtetl – Max Gross (HarperVia, $32.99)
Reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books
And now for something completely different. A novel of a small Jewish town in Poland, lost in time.
It has missed the Holocaust, the Cold War, the invention of the internal combustion engine. There isn't much reason for the villagers of Kreskol to leave their environs – they have all they need and the forest around them is dense and forbidding. Their only visitors are a band of gypsies who come through every now and again to trade.
The stick that pokes the plot is the breakdown of a marriage. Pesha has married Ishmael because he made her laugh … once. The humour was apparently an accident and Ishmael's sour disposition surfaces quickly.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Pesha tries to be a wife but is miserable. The local community, including kind Rabbi Sokolow, counsel the couple but the situation deteriorates. Pesha goes missing, closely followed by her husband and Kreskol leaps to the most obvious conclusion – foul play!
Kreskol has no constabulary, having very little crime to speak of, so the town decides to send their most expendable son into the world to report the crime and seek help.
Yankel Lewinkopf is a bastard, his late mother's reputation a stain on the community. This cheerful, hard-working young man catches a ride when the gyspies come through and heads out into a world that makes no sense to him whatsoever.
Seeing the modern world through Yankel's eyes is to marvel at it, and to fear for what he is about to bring down upon Kreskol: the speed of innovation, the complexity of modern life, and the dreadful events that Kreskol escaped, so astoundingly horrific that Yankel believes he is being tricked when first told of them.
This story has plenty of humour and a finely honed plot in which Kreskol's origins and reasons for remaining hidden are beautifully explained. It shines a light on the ridiculousness of the modern world, its kindness and its cruelty.
The Lost Shtetl is fresh, original, funny and sad, a fabulous read for anyone looking for something different.