The Houseguest begins by depicting the desperation of American Jews in the World War II era as their kindred are being decimated overseas. A glamorous but awkward refugee, Ana Biedler, comes to stay with the Auer family in Utica, New York. Abe, the European-born patriarch, owns a junkyard. Mother, Irene, and daughter, Judith, live comfortably preparing for her wedding, but the onslaught to European Jewry weighs in the background. Instead of showing gratitude, Biedler treats “their house not so much as a home but a cheap hotel she’d mistakenly been booked into.” The reader and other characters are left asking why she is so moody, what does she do all day, and when is she leaving?
Kim Brooks weaves a complex story that spans countries, states, and venues. The novel appears to be about Jews figuring out meaning in a time of crisis. But more questions arise about who Biedler is and what the hosts’ role may be in making her feel comfortable. Does she want to be there? What are her plans? What did she suffer? At first the town rabbi seems to have the answers, but soon it becomes clear that he has his own problems. Meanwhile, an organization called the Committee for a Jewish Army desperately lobbies the federal government to intervene in Hitler’s violent genocide. A steamer full of Jews clamoring to be let in the U.S. for refuge is turned away, the passengers sent back to their death. A synagogue is burned in Manhattan. Who is responsible? The characters begin to wonder if Jews in New York are safe.
This intricately told novel depicting the minutiae of domestic life and relationships, loss and grief, delves into the dark psychology of the characters and their layered and loaded interactions. The mood falls as low as the characters contemplate those on board the doomed St. Louis ship fleeing Nazi Germany, whose lights twinkled off the coast of Miami, never finding safe harbor. The novel asks how it is possible to be positive when atrocities one cannot prevent are being committed during one’s own lifetime.
The ending of the novel will reward readers with a twist that ties up loose ends but also presents more questions about these characters facing tough situations. Descriptive moments of levity depicting pre-World War II Jewish life in Europe and the Yiddish theater provide a window into a vibrant world and add another layer to this story that keeps the reader guessing until the end.
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Dina Weinstein is a Richmond, Virginia-based writer.