Thank you to Second Story Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of A First Around the Heart Side by Heather Chisvin, which will publish April 10, 2018. All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 3 Characters: 3 Plot: 4
Quite the grand undertaking! This historical novel follows the fortunes of two young Jewish sisters who are sent to Winnipeg, Manitoba, from a Russian shtetl in order to escape the pogroms in 1881. Anna eventually makes her way to New York where, fiercely independent and with a strong social conscience, she becomes part of the birth control movement. Esther remains in Winnipeg, marries well, and yet continues to suffer from strange episodes of altered state and a (quite natural) obsessive fear of anti-Semitism. In 1942, where the “present day” is centered, Anna receives notice that Esther has died, apparently a suicide, just as she returned to Winnipeg from her last visit. Untangling this mystery, as well as the fog around their departure from Russia, is the loose driver of the book.
The story is intricate and rich — almost too rich as the narrative veers wildly between different time periods (and locations). There is a lot of history stuffed into their lives – particularly Anna’s as she participates in so many cultural trends over the 60 years. Historical episodes include the Bolshevik revolution, the assassination of Alexander II, the stock market collapse, the Dust Bowl, the birth of Avon, early feminism, bohemians, psychiatric methods, TB sanitariums, jazz music, the birth control movement, and “If Day,” a simulation of Nazi takeover in Winnipeg designed to help raise war funds held on Feb, 19, 1942.
While I wish the editing had been a bit tighter and the characters drawn with a little more depth, I found the story quite gripping and read it through pretty quickly. The descriptions of Winnipeg in particular were completely new to me, as were several of the stories from that time period in New York.