29 September 2009
Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau was mesmerizingly wonderful. I am so thankful to other bloggers who reviewed it which encouraged me to pick it up. The story is told in two voices and two time periods. It is a story of love and loss, beauty and truth, and faith. It is an old man's memoirs and a young man's thoughts and dreams. The voices and stories are alternated between an old Jewish man, Itsik Malpesh, who has written his life story via the Yiddish alphabet and a young Catholic man who, through translator's notes written as he translates Malpesh's story from Yiddish to English, interjects his own story and problems.
Malpesh's story begins in 1903 in Bessarabia, follows him through the two world wars, and to Baltimore where the collaboration begins between the two men. The younger man is a college graduate with a degree in religions and languages. He has recently learned to read Yiddish and comes to meet with Malpesh. This is the great coincidence of the book and holds the wonder of both men's stories.
The writing in this novel is excellent and I was delighted with the format. Because Malpesh described himself first as a poet, writing love poems for a woman he never really knew, the writing in the novel includes many of his songs for the butcher's daughter, who was present at his birth. The author includes Jewish culture from the "old country" as well as descriptions of the immigrant experience. Additionally, the lives of both men shelter some wonderfully interesting characters which Manseau presents to us in a fullness that brings both worlds into sharp focus.
While I found myself loving both men, I was drawn to the younger man in this novel. Like him, I am Catholic. Also like him, I am drawn to Judaism - the history, the culture, the beliefs, by an unknown force. The translator's life was in some way changed by his interaction with a faith not his own, and I believe that mine is as well. I loved this novel. The focus on languages and hope uplifted me even in the face of sadness.
This is author Peter Manseau's first novel. You can listen to an interview with the author at NPR. Songs for the Butcher's Daughter was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction and the Sophie Brody Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Literature. The novel was shortlisted for the Mercantile Library First Novel Prize and was recognized as one of ABC Australia's Best International Books of the Year. You can visit the author's website as well.
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