The House­guest

  • Review
By – April 11, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Kim Brooks

Before Pearl Harbor

Set­ting a Sto­ry in the Shell of a Rust Belt Boomtown

Discussion Questions