Jonathan Rabb’s Among the Living is a Moving Post-War Novel  of the American South

Jonathan Rabb has written a warm and thoughtful novel about a Holocaust survivor who immigrates to Savannah, Georgia, after the war.  Yitzhak Goldah, the protagonist of Among the Living, is 31 years old when he joins a distant cousin’s family in Savannah.  His cousin and his wife warmly welcome Goldah, even as they expect him to join in their way of life automatically and enthusiastically.  These folks like their world and are eager to share it with Goldah.  But Goldah, a journalist before the war, is not particularly observant and doesn’t care to conform to his cousins’ expectations.  Just as he is getting used to his own freedom, Goldah is both bewildered and bemused by the competing Jewish congregations in Savannah and declines to choose sides.  He didn’t survive the Holocaust so that he could be prevented from seeing the people he chooses to see.  Conflicts ensue.  There are romantic issues, social issues and sinister business problems.  Additional conflict is provided by the irony of dealing with Savannah’s stifling Jim Crow environment.

Yitzgak is a sensitively drawn character who doesn’t fit any pattern of a helpless, grateful refugee.  He is damaged, but he wants to get his life back.  The book’s other characters also prove interesting because of their world views and the unusual and often unexpected problems they face.  Flawed as they are, these characters compel sympathy.  They may not see things the same way and they may try to bend others to their points of view, but that isn’t the whole story.  The ability to see things differently and the willingness to bend the rules to help others makes this a powerful, complex story.  After the horrific violence and cruelty of the Holocaust, these characters’ goodwill and gentle efforts to control events provide a welcome contrast.  That said, there is the overarching reality of Jim Crow, which reminds us that all is far from well in Savannah.

I recommend this book.  Jonathan Rabb has provided provocative, sympathetic characters facing unusual challenges in a fascinating setting.

The Railwayman’s Wife – A Beautiful Novel about Post War Australia

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Ashley Hay has written a beautiful novel about a young, grieving widow in post-WWII Australia.  The Railwayman’s Wife is short and to the point.  Most of the characters are suffering from loss, and the intersections of these fragile, young people are what makes this book so good.

Ani Lachlan is the young widow.  She has suddenly lost her husband and is numb, but she also has a young daughter and a sudden need to earn a living.  Somewhat randomly, Ani is thrust back into the world as the local librarian.  Although it feels strange to have a job and a schedule in the face of her grief, this is a good move for her.

The Railwayman’s Wife is particularly appealing and satisfying because it is set in the world of books.  Ani’s library literally provides a welcome haven, as well as a point of entry back into the community.   Throughout this lovely story, there are references to choosing books, poetry and reading aloud.  In the face of terrible grief, books and reading provide sustenance.  They also link Ani to her late husband, whose books and love of reading aloud help describe him.

I loved The Railwayman’s Wife for many of the reasons I loved Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies, which I previously reviewed.  Both books have distinctive and somewhat unusual settings (Joyce’s Staten Island and Hay’s small coastal Australian town), which provide a strong background for their stories.  They also revolve around recent, accidental deaths of young men and the families that survive them.  The numbing shock of loss and uncertainty about how to behave are common to both books, as is the characters’ growing understanding of how they will proceed with their own lives and feel pleasure again.

I strongly recommend The Railwayman’s Wife,  as well as Small Mercies.  These are serious, appealing books that provide intelligent comfort and understanding in the face of traumatic loss.