by Leela Corman (Knopf Doubleday, 2012)
Leela Corman's absorbing coming-of-age tale follows the lives of twin sisters and Russian Jews Fanya and Esther as they grow to womanhood on the lower East Side of New York. Beginning in 1909, they work alongside their seamstress mother until, as they approach adolescence, their paths slowly but surely diverge. Interwoven throughout the story is the tale of their father, who fled the Cossacks who murdered his first wife in Russia, a thread that runs throughout the story like the radius of a web, connecting everything.
"Unterzakhn" is Yiddish for "underthings," a literal and metaphorical reference to the issues that define the lives of the sisters. Fanya attracts the attention of Bronia, the local "ladies' doctor," who dispenses medicine, abortions and contraceptives to women in desperate need. She must do so clandestinely because, at the time, all of that was illegal. Esther's path is heartbreakingly different as she is forced to work in a brothel at a young age, where she learns how to use her sexuality and allure for profit and personal gain, becoming a well-known prostitute and dancer at a brothel and then a stage actress.
Even though the story itself is formulaic, with an ending easily seen from the beginning, it's still a mesmerizing glimpse of anti-Semitism in Russia and the U.S., and of the sexism women suffered that limited their choices.
Esther and Fanya live in a world where there is a great deal of pain but also a lot of unexpected opportunity. They live in reaction to their environment, to their treatment by others, to the broader culture of dominance, but also manage to find an identity of sorts.
The only drawback to using characters to make a point is that individuality is sometimes lost. They end up feeling rather two-dimensional. Additionally, the conclusion felt rather rushed.
Corman's art is for the most part quite wonderful. Each panel is well used, with great thought given to the impact created by each image. There are times when the art describes the action so enthusiastically that it almost leaps off the page. At other times, the lack of variation in the line weight made me wonder where one character's hair ended and the rest of the room began, or which character was which, which can be problematic with a fast-paced narrative. For the most part, though, it's one of the most visually well-plotted stories I've read to date.
It's honest, it's simple and it's emotionally wrenching. The world Corman creates is well researched and highly immersive, filled with stark highs and lows, the way life lived on the edges of society always is. Unterzakhn's sincerity and believability makes up for its rough edges. Yes, it's emotionally substantial but it's also an easy to read story that will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.
6 October 2012
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