Shtetl Love Song – Grigory Kanovich

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Published by Noir Press (Release date October 14 2017)
Author: Grigory Kanovich
Translated from Russian by Yisrael Elliot Cohen
Genre: Autobiographical novel
Pages: 521
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Opening line:

“For a long time I have been intending to write about my mother with that joyous enthusiasm and the kind of abundant detail with which it is fitting to recall one’s parents, the people closest and dearest to you.”

Synopsis (from Noir Press website):

Grigory Kanovich’s autobiographical novel ‘Shtetl Love Song’ is based on real events from the life of the author’s family and the small town characters that peopled the world of his early years. It has been described as being a requiem for the pre-war Lithuanian Jewish shtetl.

In ‘Shtetl Love Song’ Grigory Kanovich writes about his mother, and in doing so peels back the surface of the rich community that lived in pre-war Lithuania. It is a requiem for the pre-war Jewish shtetl, for a people and a way of life that was destroyed.

My review

At the heart of this autobiographical novel is family and community. Before coming across this book I didn’t know much about the Jewish religion, and I had never heard of the term ‘Shtetl’. In fact, my knowledge of Jews (I now realise) comes from studying WW2 in history lessons at school.

This book has educated me in that way, it’s opened my eyes to what life was like for Jewish people before the war. A Shtetl, I now know, is a small town which has a large population of Jewish people living in it. These towns existed before the holocaust, but I never knew they existed at all, which is the first reason I think this book is an important read.

The second reason is that family life plays such a huge role in the narrative. The novel is divided into two halves, Book One and Book Two, and the entire story is narrated by the son of Hennie, who is our author. The opening line is particularly poignant after having read the book, because Kanovich has achieved exactly what I believe he set out to. The novel is so endearing towards family members, family friends and other people in the community, and there is a sense of closeness for everyone yet it has a subtle quality which is unlike anything I’ve read before.

Kanovich appears in Book Two, as the first half is focused on his mother Hennie and her navigation through life, family, and work. She is the star of the first half, and during these same pages we are getting to know all the other family members and notable people in the community. As the names are Jewish, I sometimes lost track of who was who, or how to pronounce a name, but once I got about 100 pages in, I had no trouble knowing who was who.

The best thing about this book is the novelistic style. If I didn’t know it was autobiographical I would think it’s a fiction novel set in Lithuania exploring Jewish life pre-WW2. And, it is that except because it’s based on true events the details, the character quirks, the dialogue…everything is so real. When reading it, I became so immersed in it, I sat for hours with this book, dedicated to it and the lives within.

It almost felt as though I was part of the family, living alongside them and watching a whole life unfold in front of me. New people enter, there’s marriage, births, deaths, people leave, people return…and it’s an experience. There’s a life contained in this book, and although I’ve read similar genre books that are more aligned with memoir than autobiographical novel, none of them strike me as capturing a life in so much detail as this one. I didn’t expect to be as involved in it as I ended up being.

Book Two features our author, named Hirshke Kanovich in the novel, and it’s a strange but sweet thing to have narrator hose voice has been there all along but who is now physically in the events of the book, and interacting with the people you’ve got to know. The way this narrative has been written is spot on, and quite clever.

Towards the end of the book, everything is a lot more chaotic, and it’s less like you’re living among the people, but by this point I was so endeared to them that this didn’t matter. The last parts really deal with and explore the effects of WW2 beginning, and what it meant for the community. It’s a moving end, and the title of this book is exactly what it is, it’s a love song to these communities of people through presenting a family, and a life lived as part of it. The entire book is a great achievement, and worth every page.

NOTE: I received this book from Noir Press in exchange for an honest review.

Shtetl Love Song is available from 14 October 2017.

Read more here: Shtetl Love Song

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