Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, By Peter Manseau

Reviewed,Brandon Robshaw
Sunday 21 February 2010 01:00

Itsik Malpesh, a Jew born in turn-of-the-century Russia, is four years old when the butcher's daughter saves his life during a pogrom. (Or so he's told. Much later in the story, we hear the butcher's daughter's side of things.) As a child, he works in a goose-down factory, until he's press-ganged into the Russian army. Escaping, he finds refuge in Odessa, where he enjoys a couple of peaceful years before being smuggled to the US in a trunk, where he becomes a poet, writing in Yiddish. After that, the hectic pace of Peter Manseau's novel slows a little, but still to come are love affairs, unexpected reunions and a murder.

The narrative is intercut with notes from the translator of these memoirs, who meets Malpesh when the poet is a nonagenarian. The lives of Jewish communities in early 20th-century Russia and America are so vividly realised, I assumed that the author must be Jewish; but, like his fictional translator, Manseau is actually a Yiddish-speaking Catholic. It's a picaresque novel with an epic sweep, containing tragedy, comedy and a huge love of life.

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