This Rebel Heart

  • Review
By – November 30, 2022

His­to­ry meets metaphor and mag­i­cal real­ism in Kather­ine Locke’s new young adult nov­el, This Rebel Heart. Encom­pass­ing in one con­tin­u­ous sto­ry the fate of Hun­gar­i­an Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust and Hungary’s post­war sta­tus as a Sovi­et satel­lite nation, the book rais­es ques­tions about iden­ti­ty and com­mit­ment. Both the struc­ture of the nar­ra­tive and the inter­nal con­flicts of its char­ac­ters chal­lenge read­ers to reject bina­ry oppo­si­tions. Jews, for instance, were vic­tims of the Nazis, but also of their fel­low Hun­gar­i­ans; and some Jews col­lab­o­rat­ed with the oppres­sive pro-Sovi­et regime to deny their Jew­ish kin human rights.

Csil­la Tisza is a young Jew­ish woman who lost most of her extend­ed fam­i­ly when Hungary’s Jews were deport­ed and killed by the Nazis. Her par­ents sur­vived, only to fall vic­tim after the war to anti­se­mit­ic gov­ern­ment purges. She works as a typ­ist at a Budapest news­pa­per, whose edi­tor large­ly accepts the per­va­sive cen­sor­ship of all Hun­gar­i­an media. Des­per­ate for a new begin­ning, Csil­la is about to escape the coun­try when events and rela­tion­ships rad­i­cal­ly change her goals.

The col­or­less­ness of Sovi­et dom­i­na­tion, where the once-vibrant city itself has become a gray ghost of its past, is a cen­tral motif of the nov­el. Social activism, love, and the pur­suit of truths about her late father inter­act to trans­form Csil­la. Her vic­tim­hood will nev­er be erased, but her devel­op­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with sev­er­al ambigu­ous fig­ures changes her for­ev­er. Female friends restrict­ed by social con­ven­tions, gay and bisex­u­al men forced to live in the shad­ows of repres­sion, and a para­dox­i­cal­ly com­fort­ing angel of death all influ­ence this painful process of growth.

At the core of the nov­el is Csilla’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, which remains con­stant despite the oth­er­wise unsteady nature of her life. Csilla’s fam­i­ly includes a range of reli­gious obser­vance but a shared inher­i­tance of folk­loric tra­di­tions. Prayer, eth­i­cal pre­cepts, and rich por­traits of super­nat­ur­al beings are deeply root­ed in Csilla’s con­scious­ness. Inspired by the famous teach­ing of Rab­bi Nach­man of Breslov, she under­stands that the world is a nar­row and ten­u­ous bridge that one must nav­i­gate with­out fear. When Hungary’s appar­ent chance at free­dom demands exis­ten­tial choic­es, the Jew­ish core of her being pro­vides an inalien­able source of courage.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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