Monday, March 09, 2015

Alexis Landau's The Empire of the Senses, an absorbing saga about a mixed-faith family in WWI and late '20s Berlin

A top-notch literary saga with a gripping plotline, Landau’s debut explores the complex questions of loyalty and ethnic identity in its depiction of a mixed-faith family living through social change during WWI and late 1920s Berlin.

Lev Pearlmutter and his gentile wife, Josephine, have a strained relationship even before he enlists. When he returns, having been emotionally transformed by his service in a close-knit Russian village, he has more reason to regret his marriage, but he loves his two children, Franz and Vicki.  Lev always considers himself more German than Jewish, and by 1927, they are a family of affluence that mixes well in society, or so it seems.

However, disconnection from their heritage affects each of the Pearlmutters differently. Even as anti-Semitic sentiment increases, ebullient Vicki is romantically drawn to a Jewish man. For Franz, a repressed gay man desperate for belonging, generational rebellion manifests itself in a particularly insidious way.

Each perfectly crafted individual is fully involved in the surrounding world. In Landau’s hands, even a simple trip to the barber, in which Lev muses on his own and the country’s problems, becomes meaningful and illustrative of the novel’s themes. The characters’ actions and thoughts are so three-dimensionally human that readers may forget they’re reading fiction and not experiencing their real lives alongside them.

The Empire of the Senses will be published on March 17th by Pantheon (hb, 496pp, $27.95).  This starred review first appeared in Booklist's January issue.  Back in December, I had listed it as one of a dozen favorite historical novels that I'd read in 2014; I wanted to hold off reposting the review until the publication date was closer. 

The publisher's blurb states:  "Unlike most historical novels of this kind, The Empire of the Senses is not about the Holocaust but rather about the brew that led to it, and about why it was unimaginable to ordinary people like Lev and his wife."  An accurate assessment, imho.


  1. Anonymous3:10 PM

    High praise, Sarah. Literary historical is my fav, though I tend not to like to read about the World wars (depressing - shallow, I know! but it's how they affect me). Love the title. (But can't help feeling The should have been left off the front. Is it only me?)

    1. Hi Cynthia, literary historical has gotten to be a favorite style of mine, too. This is a book that I had known nothing about until it arrived for review, and I enjoyed every page of it. It's much more about the social changes of the time rather than the fighting, if that helps.

      What a coincidence you mentioned that about the title. Yes, I agree. In fact, I had typed up the post without the initial "The" because I misremembered it as just "Empire of the Senses," and then, after seeing the cover image, added the initial article back in. Even though it felt wrong. :)