Thursday, May 03, 2018

A Fist Around the Heart by Heather Chisvin, a multi-layered literary mystery spanning six decades of women's lives

This is such a surprising book, one filled with layers inside layers and new revelations at every turn. Moving back and forth from WWII-era New York and Winnipeg and a Russian shtetl in the 1880s, and many points in between, it doesn’t offer the chronological path of a standard historical novel. However, its flow feels natural, like the unspooling of memories from a remarkable life.

In 1942, Anna Grieve, a well-off career woman in her sixties and longtime Manhattan resident, has just put her older sister Esther on a train back to Winnipeg after an enjoyable, long-awaited visit. Following Esther’s arrival home on “If Day,” the date of a simulated Nazi invasion, Anna receives a call from a policeman that Esther is dead; she’d walked in front of a moving train, an apparent suicide. Esther, a widowed society matron, had had episodes of mental instability from childhood on—periods when she seemed tuned out from reality—although she’d seemed fine during her stay.

As Anna herself returns to Winnipeg for answers, a mystery unfolds, drawing in reminiscences of both women’s earlier lives. In 1881, when Anna was five and Esther ten, their frightened parents, fearing anti-Semitic retaliation after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination, sent the girls away from Russia with her mother’s aristocratic employers. On their transatlantic voyage, young Anna’s confusion is palpable. Despite a comfortable upbringing, with an adoptive father who respects her intelligence, Anna worries continuously about her fragile, ethereally beautiful sister.

Anna is a woman of astonishing cour​age and hidden complexities. She forms friendships, has several love affairs, and participates in the early birth control movement alongside Margaret Sanger. Chisvin brings this setting alive with vibrant ease. One of Anna’s later travels feels a bit contrived, but this debut is a fine literary mystery with an insightful look at an unusual sisterly relationship.

A Fist Around the Heart (the title comes from a line in the novel) was published by Canada's Second Story Press in April.  I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy.

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