Book Review: The Fawn

the fawn

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The protagonist and narrator of The Fawn is twenty-six year old Eszter Encsy, a successful actress in post war Hungary. The novel tells her life story through fragments of memory. These unfold and merge to explain the role she believes she must play to survive.

Born and raised in the city of Szolnok in central Hungary, Eszter now lives in Budapest. She has an older lover to whom she is directing her telling of events, including how she is feeling. Like all those she has ever known, he does not understand what she is below the surface. She acts out her own life as she does those of assigned characters on the stage.

Now orphaned, Eszter was the only child of a sickly father and an aristocratic mother whose wealthy family all but abandoned them after her marriage. As Eszter’s father did not work, for a variety of reasons, her mother earned what she could by giving piano lessons to their more privileged neighbours. Eszter was expected to clean and cook for her family as well as doing odd jobs for anyone who would pay her a few pengő. She used this pittance to buy food and medicine, much of which was then consumed by her beloved father. She was not averse to stealing should the opportunity arise.

“the cream was sweet and soft and she still had a whole bowl full of it, vanilla-flavoured, and at home everything like that went straight to my father”

Eszter regarded her parents as beautiful and adoring of each other to their end. She felt sidelined, growing bitter and resentful of the demands and expectations placed on her. She did not, however, complain, learning to internalise both her physical and emotional suffering. What festered within was a hatred for those whose lives appeared comparatively easy. This is personified in a classmate, Angéla, who harbours the mistaken belief that Eszter is her friend.

When their affair started, Eszter was unaware that her married lover’s wife is Angéla, who she had not seen at the time for many years. When this fact is revealed, the way he speaks of Angéla and their history eats into his and Eszter’s relationship. Eszter, once again, wants nothing more than to hurt her former classmate, whose life as she sees it has been filled with comfort and kindly attention. Eszter grows increasingly angry and frustrated when Angéla continues to garner support and consideration, always taking it for granted.

What is revealed is the lasting damage caused by a childhood of hunger and deprivation. Eszter learned young how to hide her true feelings in order to survive. This stood her in good stead as political turmoil changed the lives of so many, especially the wealthy. When Eszter’s family home was destroyed in a wartime bombing raid she did not mourn the loss of their few possessions – she valued them little. Rehomed temporarily in a hotel she had enough to eat and this was a luxury.

The narrative is disjointed in many ways but the structuring fits with how memory works. Images come to mind and their significance is pondered, retold as suits the time in which they are remembered. The ‘Dramatis Personae’ at the start of the book is useful in differentiating the cast of characters. Although it takes time to understand and engage with the plot, the writing style remains impressively taut and compelling, holding reader attention.

There is much screaming with laughter or faces wet with tears – these are obviously an emotional people. Even Eszter, who so often detaches herself from difficult feelings, cries and laughs, although mostly from a perspective of barely contained anger. Her lover reveals himself as shallow emotionally, self-absorbed and unaware of what Eszter is thinking. His continuing support for his wife may well stem from ego, a superficial need to believe he is a good person despite his infidelity.

Eszter is a strong if damaged character. She cares little how her lifestyle is regarded by others, believing she will never be loved having never felt valued for what she is. Her attention is focused on survival with a side dish of revenge. When a pivotal event pierces the armour she has constructed for self-preservation, those she could turn to do not recognise the crisis she now faces as they have never been permitted access to the true self even she can barely accept.

Any Cop?: Although a slow burn this is a masterfully constructed tale. The protagonist may often be somewhat unlikable but her outcome is still devastating. Hungary’s history through the mid twentieth century provides a fascinating backdrop. Another impressive translation of a story by this author that is well worth reading.

Jackie Law


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


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.


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