From Publishers Weekly
Melnyczuk's ambitious third novel is a soulful noir about the damaging effects of history on one man's psyche. Cynical historian James Pak lives in Vienna and is still deeply affected by his father Andrew's suicide 16 years ago, and his confessional narrative, told mostly in flashbacks, fills the reader in on why he's still reeling. Just after Andrew's death, James takes possession of three of his dead father's belongings (a letter written in an unfamiliar language, a glass jar and military identification papers) and sets out to exhume his father's past. His pilgrimage leads him from Boston to England, Austria and Ukraine, and entangles him with Andrew's childhood friend, Marian, and her charge, Selena, a Palestinian woman with a twisted backstory. James encounters a branch of his father's family he never knew existed, and as he discovers the significance of the jar and military papers and the contents of the letter, his family's hidden past comes into sharp focus. James is a strikingly observant and literate guide to a world full of unsavory characters and nearly devoid of joy. Melnyczuk (What Is Told
; Ambassador of the Dead
) doesn't let anyone—especially the reader—off easy. (Mar.)
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*Starred Review* A young American, James Pak, wins a fellowship to Oxford to study history. He also plans to learn why his Ukrainian-born father committed suicide before James’ eyes. James is full of historical knowledge and theories, but he soon learns that he and his theories are impossibly naive and callow in the face of the terror, horror, and decadence of World War II and the postwar period—and the atrocities that are still being played out across Europe and the Middle East. Among other things, he learns that his grandmother and his father’s brothers are involved in human trafficking and that his father blamed himself for not saving his brother from the Gulag. Despite its modest page count, this is a big novel. It’s about identity—personal, political, and tribal. It’s about fathers and sons and mothers and sons. It’s about love, war, duty, honor, betrayal, history, and politics—and the perils of each. Melnyczuk is a writer of great power, lyricism, and assurance, and he has created a large cast of compellingly complex characters, as well as vivid portraits of London, Vienna, and Ukraine. Hard to put down and harder to forget. --Thomas Gaughan