The World to Come, by Dara Horn

Wit, whimsy and the art of suffering
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Ben Ziskind has just turned 30 and is still suffering the aftershocks of a short, unhappy marriage. He works as a question-writer for a quiz show and dreams of becoming the host, although "he was five-foot-six... spoke in a near-monotone, and was legally blind without his glasses".

He hardly sounds like a great catch, but when his twin sister Sara persuades him to attend a singles' night at a Jewish museum, we guess he is destined to Find Love with a Beautiful, Sensitive Woman. And so it turns out in Dara Horn's novel, although the first thing he does is steal a painting by Marc Chagall that his family once owned...

The scene shifts to 1920. Chagall himself is teaching art at a Jewish Boys' Colony near Moscow, where a pupil called Boris Kulbak has witnessed the destruction of his whole family in a pogrom: "He had hoped for [a brother], but he still wasn't sure, when he saw it torn from his mother's knifed-open belly and thrown through the smashed bedroom window, whether it was a boy or a girl."

The complex plot takes in three generations of Ziskinds, Vietnam, plagiarism, museum politics, terrorism, high-school gangs and KGB informers, while slowly revealing the tangled links between Chagall, Kulbak, the disputed painting and Ben. The artist found safety in the West, but most of his colleagues in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee set up by Stalin were later killed by the dictator, bringing in further dark strands of history.

Horn juggles these different balls with great skill and includes powerful scenes of suffering and violence, although there is often something uncomfortable about the juxtaposition of social comedy and Stalinist atrocity. How far is Jewish tragedy being used to add gravitas to a story of romance among affluent New Yorkers? Far more damning, though, is the way that atrocity is constantly "redeemed" by Chagall-inspired whimsy, reflections on art and folksy mysticism.

This is the kind of novel where people sleep with their eyes open or write letters to Nebuchadnezzar; adults seem unbelievably obtuse, yet children possess intuitive wisdom. Sara, a painter, experiences time solely in terms of colour: "looming pink cliffs of seasons... vague yellow dunes of sleeping hours". Even worse is the almost unbearably arch final chapter, in a "pre-world" where soon-to-be-born souls eat paintings, drink books and sleep on beds "made out of music". Horn has great flair for narrative and often writes with sharp satirical wit, but once her overwrought prose starts straining for significance it loses contact with recognisable reality. Chagall must be a dangerous model as an artist; he proves equally unsuitable as the presiding genius of a novel.

Matthew J Reisz is editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'