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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review of A FIST AROUND THE HEART by Heather Chisvin (New Release)

3.5 Stars
Two Russian Jewish sisters were sent to Winnipeg during the Anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.  Esther, the older sister, spends her entire life in Winnipeg, occasionally experiencing episodes of mental illness; Anna, younger by four years, moves to New York City and ends up being a women’s rights activist there.  In 1942, Esther returns to Winnipeg when she learns her sister has died in an apparent suicide.  Having difficulty believing Esther took her own life, Anna reads Esther’s journals and examines her own memories of key events which shaped her life and that of her sister. 

The novel covers just over 60 years, and it is obvious that the author did considerable historical research.  I enjoyed learning about the California Perfume Company, womb veils, and If Day in Winnipeg.  Historical figures like Margaret Sanger make cameo appearances.  Sometimes, however, it felt as if the scope of the book is too broad and the examination of historical events is rather superficial.  Anna finds herself in St. Petersburg in 1918, about a year after the Russian Revolution, but little information is given about the Russian political situation; the reader is left to figure out Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and Chekists.  (Would a Russian nobleman support Bolshevism?  Anna, for example, attributes her Bolshevik sympathies to her stepfather, an émigré Russian Count?  She tells a Bolshevik, “’If it weren’t for [Count Chernovski] I wouldn’t be who I am today.  I wouldn’t be nearly as sympathetic to your cause’”?)

Anna is not always a credible character.  When she arrives in Canada, she is 5 years old.  When she is 9 or 10, she is already spending her time, “reading about Grace Greenwood and Nellie Bly; articles on workers’ rights and sexual freedom and the vote for women”?  At that age she can read Harper’s New Monthly and Century Magazine in her second language?  She is only 15 when she finds herself in a situation that has her moving to Manhattan?  What a precocious young girl!

There are some other implausible events which irk.  That Nathaniel, Anna’s neighbour and friend in Russia, remains her friend in Canada seems unlikely.  He lives in the north end of Winnipeg, in New Jerusalem, and she lives in the west end, in Armstrong’s Point.   How would they have found each other?  And Anna, a young girl living in a sheltered world where “there were rules of etiquette for everything,” is just allowed to wander around the city with Nathaniel?  The officer in charge of the investigation into Esther’s death tells Anna, “’I thought you might want to look around [Esther’s house] before the police team goes through.  We’ll be restricting access to the property at that time.’”  He lets her into Esther’s home even though he says, “’We don’t want anyone going in until the investigation is over’”?   He even tells her, “’You can do whatever you want.’”  I guess police investigative procedures were very different in 1942?  And then there’s the evasion of a plot problem.  When a friend uncovers Anna’s deep secret, she asks how he found out and he replies, “’Anna.  Don’t ask me that.  It took years.’”  Oh please!

The relationship between the sisters is interesting.  Anna looks after her older but more fragile sister for the longest time but eventually becomes torn between taking care of Esther and escaping her.  That is the pattern that emerges throughout Anna’s adult life.  She convinces herself not to worry about Esther and to focus on her own life.  This type of behaviour is understandable though it doesn’t always make Anna an admirable character.  Anna knows Esther’s diagnosis for about 20 years, yet allows a situation where “After an initial flurry of letters and phone calls, our correspondence got spotty again”? 

There is an interesting story here, but the telling is sometimes muddled.  The eventual explanation for Esther’s death is certainly original.  I just wish there were a less scattered structure so the novel’s potential could be better realized.

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.