At once at a family saga, a war story, and several love stories, Alexis Landau’s riveting debut, The Empire of the Senses, paints a sweeping yet intimate portrait of pre-World War II Berlin through the eyes of the Pearlmutter family.
At the outbreak of World War I, Lev Pearlmutter enlists in the German army. His motivation is personal rather than patriotic: he wants to prove to his wife’s aristocratic family that, despite being Jewish, he is just as German as they are. Fast-forward to 1927. Even as Germany’s political stability crumbles around them, the Pearlmutters remain preoccupied by internal hopes and concerns. Lev’s son Franz is obsessed with a handsome yet vicious university friend who introduces him to the Fascist movement and goads him into increasingly self-destructive behavior. Meanwhile, Lev’s rebellious daughter Vicki is enthralled by Berlin’s underground jazz scene. She falls in love with a young immigrant who teaches her about Zionism — but should she give up her comfortable lifestyle to join him on a kibbutz?
In hindsight, it is difficult not to see Germany’s interwar years simply as a prelude to the Holocaust. But as we read The Empire of the Senses, we become so absorbed in the Pearlmutters’ struggles that we forget the fate to which they are headed. The reader experiences the events that unfold with the same mixture of eagerness and trepidation as Landau’s distinct and subtly drawn characters. As its title suggests, The Empire of the Senses shows a world defined by perception and passion as much as it is by official policy. Rather than depicting the interwar period through overarching historic events, Landau brings it to life through intimate interactions between people.
Landau’s novel is both reminiscent of the modernist classics and thoroughly contemporary. Despite its gripping plot, the narrative unfolds with graceful, organic ease. Landau’s evocative prose, attention to detail, and meticulous research makes the Pearlmutters’ physical environment as vivid as their inner lives. As the story moves from the opulent Ice Palace to rural Russia to jazz clubs and opium dens, the reader will become just as reluctant to leave Landau’s ephemeral Berlin as Lev and his family are. The Empire of the Senses is sure to establish Alexis Landau as a masterful new literary voice.
Becca Kantor is the editorial director of Jewish Book Council and its annual print literary journal, Paper Brigade. She received a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Becca was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to spend a year in Estonia writing and studying the country’s Jewish history. She lives in Brooklyn.