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from the December 2008 issue

Suzane Adam’s “Laundry”

Reviewed by Diana Thow

The story begins in a swirl: "For two days I've been running around, trying to understand, put things together, find some clarity, explain. Not lose my mind. This isn't the time to lose it." The speaker of these sentences, Ephraim, struggles to make sense of the sudden disturbing actions of his gentle wife, Ildiko. What has actually taken place remains unclear, but with these words we begin to experience its intense aftermath: Ephraim wild with worry, Ildiko's family distraught, concerned neighbors checking in—all the contours of a crisis. Ildiko, introspective and frail, begins to slowly, carefully answer her husband's bewildered questions with a story she has never told anyone, one that maps years of obsession, torment, and fear, a fragmented tale which only comes full circle in the novel's remarkable conclusion.

To begin her story Ildiko revisits memories of her childhood in Transylvania in the 1960s. There we meet Yutzi, a charming older girl who Ildiko and her family adore. Ildiko, then five years old, follows Yutzi everywhere and aspires to be just like her, but a nightmarish visit to the slaughterhouse where Yutzi works reveals her darker side and marks the beginning of a painful history between the two girls. Convinced that Yutzi is plotting to do away with her, Ildiko silently suffers years of emotional and physical torment.

Ildiko only manages to escape the threatening presence of Yutzi when she and her family emigrate to Israel. Though this seems like a fresh start and an opportunity to wipe away her troubled past, Ildiko struggles to adapt to her new culture, landscape, language and to fully inhabit the name that her Israeli classmates give her: Chavatzelet. She finds her solace not by interacting with these new surroundings but by observing and drawing them, and her narration reflects this artistic sensibility.Take, for example, Ildiko's lush description of her sister Zsuzsi: "My sister bloomed in a blaze of color: a deep burgundy, pale yellow, turquoise, black and white. She was tall and solid, her muscular arms were tan even in winter, her blue eyes outlined in black, they shone in the dark and glittered in the daylight." Ildiko, by contrast, grows into a sensitive, intensely private woman. But even as an adult she still cannot shake her lingering fears from childhood; the memory of the emotional trauma she suffered at the hands of Yutzi continues to haunt her, with devastating repercussions.

Just under the surface of Ildiko's narrative is the tale of her mother, and others of her generation, who survived the Holocaust and struggled to reconstruct a life after losing everything. The pressures that this experience places upon them, their children and their communities indelibly marks the novel and its characters. But brighter narratives are woven into Laundry as well. About three-quarters of the way through, the novel blossoms into a love story. The fluid, polyvocal narrative, which has focused primarily on Ildiko's tale, shifts to Ephraim, who tells of how he came to fall in love with Ildiko while working as her family's gardener. Though sweet, this too is a story of obsession. Before he even meets Ildiko he is sure he loves her: "I don't want to think about her in terms of flesh and blood; she exists in the fragrance that remains where she has been, in her empty room, in the changes that take place on the stool next to the easel, in her clothes hanging on the clothesline." Throughout the novel the crisp, clear images and moments of reflection allow Laundry to float above the darker set of questions it proposes.

Suzane Adam has crafted Laundry as a study in deferral and a testimony to the power of the narrative. The book deftly balances the framework of a psychological drama with a deep lyricism. Translator Becka Mara McKay maintains this gorgeous tension in lucid, gripping prose. We have both Adam and McKay to thank for a novel so compelling and beautifully wrought that we hardly notice when nearly two hundred and thirty pages have passed before we are brought to the dark heart of Ildiko's action, the climax of her story—which is, we realize, what got us here in the first place. Laundry is a quick-paced, intelligent novel and a nuanced reflection on love, obsession and the complex depths of memory.

Diana Thow is the book review editor at Words Without Borders. A translator from the Italian, she teaches a course on literary translation at the University of Iowa.

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