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Friday, April 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Reviews

First novels: Deconstructing the family

Seattle Times book critic

Family as sanctuary, family in disarray, family facing crisis — these are some of the mainstays of fiction, and a natural draw for young writers. The three debut novels below make good use of them, with one remarkable book among them expanding the very concept of "family" to tap into nightmare currents of 20th-century history.

"Our Holocaust"
by Amir Gutfreund,
translated by Jessica Cohen
Toby Press, 407 pp,. $24.95

You wouldn't expect a novel titled "Our Holocaust" — about a family so damaged by history that they start inventing relatives to fill in for their dead — to be laugh-out-loud funny. Yet in its loving, sunny opening section, this first novel by Israeli writer Amir Gutfreund is a playful study of what it's like for two youngsters to grow up among an eccentric collection of elderly Holocaust survivors in a sleepy suburb of Haifa in the 1960s and '70s.

Amir and Effi are "enjoying a wonderful childhood in the shadow of their [elders'] terrors," thanks in part to their parents' flexible "Law of Compression" whereby any suitable neighbor can become a family relation.

Author appearance

Katharine Noel reads from "Halfway House," 7 p.m. Tuesday, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

"Our greatest need was for grandfathers," narrator Amir explains "and so we ... gathered as many of them as we could."

There's miserly Grandpa Lolek, whose ability "to catch colds in tandem with us enabled him to use our cough syrup and conserve his own." There's Grandpa Yosef, "champion of the needy, always helping, rescuing, supporting."

In the book's first 180 pages, as we meet more and more of these characters, we fall deeper and deeper into Amir and Effi's game of trying to learn their "family" history. Told repeatedly that they aren't "Old Enough," they grow ruthless, rifling through neighbors' belongings, using homework assignments as an excuse to ask questions.

Why is Gershon Klima referred to as "his own brother"? Who was "Untersturmführer Kurt Franz, known as Doll"? Why does Crazy Hirsch roam the neighborhood shouting "Only saints were gassed?!"

Eager though they are to know more about a war in which "pale neighborhood characters turned into protagonists in a plot," they fail to realize what a Pandora's Box of information they're sitting on. When finally they are "Old Enough," that box, under pressure from Amir, flies open, and the novel becomes a strange, astonishing and terrifying headlong dive into the world of the Holocaust.

Gutfreund's writing is brilliant, his teasing narrative mesmerizing, and the thought behind it subtle and extraordinarily limber in its shadings of Jewish life under the Nazis. This is no beginner's effort, but a powerhouse accomplishment rivaling Günter Grass' "The Tin Drum" or Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Kudos to translator Jessica Cohen, who's done a masterful job of bringing it into English.

"Send Me"
by Patrick Ryan
Dial Press, 310 pp., $23

Smaller in scale and more domestic in its focus, Patrick Ryan's "Send Me" is a meticulously crafted, immensely satisfying piece of work.

It starts off on a Flannery O'Connor note: An ailing young man in a beat-up car turns down a backwoods road in Alabama to visit with the Rev. Damien Lee Wheeler, painter of prophetic calendars and predictor of an "Eleventh Coming" in which space aliens will arrive on Earth to "finish the job this century started."

The visitor is Frankie Kerrigan of Merritt Island, Fla. (the nearby NASA launches that served as backdrop to his boyhood may be behind his willingness to believe in space aliens). And the 12 chapters of "Send Me" — skipping back and forth in time, from one point-of-view to another — reveal what's happened to him and his fractured family.

There's Teresa, his devoutly Catholic mother, who's willing to lie about her divorce if it means she can still take Communion. There are Dermot and Roy, her two husbands who both wind up ditching her. Her kids by Dermot, Matt and Katherine, are headstrong rebels who both leave home at any early age. Her kids by Roy, Joe and Frankie, are a different story, especially Frankie, a genuinely odd and gifted boy who bewilders yet enchants his family.

Ryan perfectly captures the ordinary irritating noise of family activity: spats, power-plays, jealousies, celebrations — and one hurricane evacuation (you feel like you're there in that cramped hotel room). He can also slip inside any situation, from marital entrapment to teenage acting-out to more inchoate soul-seeking, with utter authority.

There's a wry humor at work throughout the book, a pleasurable turn in every phrase, and a constant sense of surprise at play within each story, as well as in how the stories relate to one another. This is fine work. Let's see more.

"Halfway House"
by Katharine Noel
Atlantic Monthly, 367 pp., $23

Katharine Noel's debut novel concentrates more narrowly on a single, long-term family trauma. This is family as crucible, with scarcely any reference points outside itself.

In the opening pages of "Halfway House," something is decidedly "off" with high-school swim champion Angie Voorster. Hyped up for that morning's swim meet, she behaves loudly, rudely and abruptly until she gets into the pool. Once in the water, she dives to the bottom — and stays there.

"I'll tell you my secret," she says after she's been pulled out. "I don't have to breathe."

Angie has had a nervous breakdown. And "Halfway House" chronicles the consequences this has on her and her family: father Pieter, a Dutch-born cellist whose emotional world is entirely wrapped up in the discipline of his music; mother Jordana, a women's-clinic employee who's thoroughly messy and self-indulgent in her personal life; and younger brother Luke who, thanks to the spotlight being on Angie, is able to get away with no-nos such as staying overnight with his girlfriend.

Noel proves a capable writer as she lightly suggests the connection between Angie's careening brain chemistry and some of her family members' emotional quirks of temperament. And her observations can be crisply on target — the peak moments of the book have a perilous vigor to them.

Yet there's something slack about the novel as a whole, especially in its last 100 pages. Noel is competing here with the classics of nervous breakdown, Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar," and family meltdown, Christina Stead's "The Man Who Loved Children." If she falls short of the gut-punch irresistibility of those novels, she nevertheless has genuine talent. Maybe in a shorter, more tightly structured narrative it would shine more clearly.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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