Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall

4/5 stars

It’s difficult to review Holocaust fiction because the content and plot can often be so harrowing that it defies the imagination.  For this reason, it often comes down to the author’s craft and ability to evoke the unimaginable rather than any particular narrative arc.  Like Affinity Konar’s Mischling, this book offers a similar poetic surrealism, asking readers to fill in the blanks as events unfold in understated simplicity.  Unlike the former, Chasing the King of Hearts is much clearer in what is going on, and although we are in the main character’s head, much less takes place in her imagination.

Chasing the King of Hearts is a lovely translation from the original Polish, and plays out as a sometimes disjointed and surreal series of vignettes from the perspective of a Polish Jew named Izolda.  When Izolda’s husband Shayek is captured and then deported to Auschwitz, she follows his trail with a singular and selfless focus.

The narrative shifts from present-day Israel to World War II era Poland and Austria as Izolda reflects on her present among her grandchildren, who are much more at home in her adopted country than she is, so the reader knows that Izolda has somehow survived Nazi occupation and deportation to the concentration camps.  The fate of her husband and the others that she encounters is not so clear.

The book is full of beautiful and memorable passages such as where Izolda grapples with the idea of an “ordinary” loss, bemused and almost abashed at the idea that it is not as devastating as a loss to the cattle cars or crematoria, or her incomprehension at being accused of being a Polish partisan when her love for her husband has no politics.  Readers remain invested in Izolda’s story from start to finish in the hope that she finds what she is looking for.



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