Image Credit: Coverbrowser
I had another one of my ideas for this blog. In each review of mine I provide links to reviews from established publications like the NY Times or Guardian. But I thought I must provide one review from one among us, the ordinary reader who writes her/his thoughts through commendable write-ups. I will provide this link at the end of each of my reviews. Tipsy, what dost thou say? Alright, ideas aside, here is my review.
“Lillian was twenty-two; she was an orphan, a widow, and the mother of a dead child, for which there’s not even a special word, it’s such a terrible thing. She would go.”
Thus goes the story of Lillian Leyb, the protagonist of Amy Bloom’s “Away.” When Lillian’s family is brutally slaughtered in a Russian pogrom, she is left alone and her three year old daughter has disappeared and is presumed dead. Lillian reaches America to live with her cousin Frieda and lands herself as the mistress of both a dashing actor and his father. But things change when another cousin lands on her doorstep and tells her that her daughter, Sophie, is alive.
Lillian’s is an intriguing portrait. She comes across as an intelligent automaton who is scrambling to gather the pieces of her and survive this life. She has internalized so much of suffering and gone through such mind numbing shock that she appears to walk through life like a zombie. Her motto is, “Az me muz, ken men. When one must, one can." Bloom’s colorless, bland sentences that are mostly drained of any drama enhance Lillian’s state of mind brilliantly.
Lillian’s quest to find her daughter exposes the seedy and sleazy underbelly of 1920s America, dotted with mottled patches of kindness. But perhaps what stood out foremost was the chain of sisterhood maintained along the book through the stories of other women apart from Lillian. Gumdrop and Chinky are strong characters who add to Lillian’s presence. However, in this process the book can appear a tad Manichean, because most of the men are shown in bad light, with the exception of a couple. But since Away does not speak just on this one level it can be couched in the more overpowering theme of Lillian’s quest.
To be appreciated is the fact that there are no loose ends that I could perceive in the book. All of Bloom’s prominent characters find closure and we know what happens to all of them. I cannot elaborate on that here without giving away spoilers but I had to mention that observation.
Finally, symbols play an important role in the book. Lillian hardly indulges in direct speech, symbolic of the environment around her, which always tries to control her. The people around her do all the talking most of the time and Lillian’s story is known mostly through the third person narrator’s voice. A severed hand is a recurring theme. Lillian’s memories of her mother’s axed down hand never leaves her and its a recurring theme. She has nightmares of it and it can also be taken as a sign of the family that has been severed from her. The book ends with Lillian seeing, “John’s hand,” the hand of the person who puts her at rest, who finally becomes her lifelong companion. The severance is now sutured back.
Away is a complete novel in many ways. At times the symbolism and stark imagery becomes a testimony to Bloom’s vivid imagination and edges on the over-dramatic. Still, Lillian’s story blew me away.
The quote that got my vote: Lillian insists she has to find Sophie, “Because she is a little, little girl. Not that she is mine. That I am hers.”
Randomhouse has helpfully provided an excerpt from the first chapter.
Verdict: Just pick up this book.
Interesting words learnt: Calliope
Reader review - Here is Sandy Nawrot's thoughts on Away.