Book Review: Katalin Street

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“the dead are not dead but continue living in this world, in one form or another”

In March 1944 German forces invaded Hungary to enforce the extermination of Jews. A year later the Soviets ‘liberated’ the country, imposing full Stalinist control from 1949. An uprising in October 1956 was quashed by Soviet intervention.

Set in Budapest between 1934 and 1968, these portentous events form the backdrop to a story of three families whose close connections are cemented during the time they live as neighbours in upmarket Katalin Street. Although impacting the course their lives take, the significance of historic events will only be recognised with hindsight. What matters at the time are the minutiae of personal interactions.

Henriette Held is six years old when she moves with her parents from the countryside to their new home in Katalin Street, nestled between the houses belonging to the Bírós and the Elekeses. Mr Held is friends with Major Bíró – they served together in the First World War. Henriette is taken under the wing of the Major’s son, Bálint, joining his group of close childhood friends which is completed by sisters Irén and Blanka Elekes.

The tale is told from the points of view of these four children across the decades. The timeframe is non linear and the reader learns early that Henriette dies. The aftershock of this event is key to the directions the others’ lives subsequently take. Each views what is happening through the prism of their personal fears and desires – their interpretations of how they imagine their friends must think and feel.

Lives can be messy and be further messed up due to: wider circumstances, misunderstandings, selfishness, and love. The horrors of the various national conflicts are downplayed in the narrative with greater emphasis given to the damage inflicted by those the cast most care for. There is sibling rivalry, jealousy, and guilt over what happens to the Helds. The girls all adore Bálint whose behaviour impacts their outcomes. Small actions, some well intentioned, continue to resonate.

Later in the story a marriage proposal takes place amidst statues – grotesques that could represent loved ones now lost. Death is depicted as no more of a loss than aging – the change in character caused by choices and experience. Such change is aptly portrayed in Henriette’s afterlife where she is reunited with her parents. They have regressed to childhood and prefer the company of their parents who shower them with attention. Henriette is angered to discover that her parent’s choices no longer revolve around her needs.

Their shared time in Katalin Street ties the three families together yet cannot bring a closer understanding to essentially disparate individuals. Those trying to build loving relationships encounter entanglements that prove how elusive and fragmented happiness can be. The depth and urgency of both the pleasure and pain of emotions is effortlessly conveyed.

Any Cop?: The story is beautifully written – an impressive feat of translation. It explores timeless themes with empathy and passion. Engaging and affecting it offers a window into the human condition. This was a pleasure to read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Exiled

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The Exiled, by Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston), is the third book in the Anna Fekete series of crime thrillers (you may read my review of the second, The Defenceless, here). This latest story is set in and around the town of Kanizsa, Serbia, where Anna is taking a much needed holiday with her mother and brother who now live in the area. Anna was born in Kanizsa but finds its customs and expectations invasive having acclimatised herself to life in Finland. She and her family have many friends eager to renew their acquaintance with a young woman they regard as a success. Some grew up with her parents and talk intimately about her late father who she barely remembers. Anna questions where she now considers home.

The story opens with a suicide. It then moves back a couple of weeks to take the reader through events leading up to this death. Anna has only just arrived in town and is attending a local wine festival with her former friends. The convivial atmosphere is shattered when her bag is stolen, the thief using the crowds to assist in his getaway. Anna gives chase but to no avail. Her friends casually blame the gypsies, an assertion that annoys the more broad-minded visitor.

There are tensions in the town due to the growing number of refugees arriving from conflict zones around the world. Along with the Romani they are blamed for rising crime and a faltering economy. When Anna’s bag is recovered, albeit stripped of cash, credit card and passport, a Romani man, found dead, is blamed and the police close the case. Anna is dissatisfied with their investigation and reluctantly decides to check things out herself.

Anna is a brittle yet determined young woman. Her somewhat abrupt manner is mirrored in the prose. It evokes a bleak situation shadowed by corruption and undercurrents of fear. Given the current problems in Europe the agitation felt by many of the characters is prescient.

Anna uncovers a disturbing series of events that suggest respected citizens are routinely breaking the law. There have been miscarriages of justice but, when itinerant people are involved, few seem to care.

The writing remains sharp and focused throughout, flowing deftly as the true darkness of the tale is revealed. Anna is a complex, vulnerable yet strong and admirable protagonist. This was a taut and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on The Finnish Invasion Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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The Exiled is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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