Rough crossings

<strong>Away</strong>

Amy Bloom <em>Granta, 224pp, £10.99</em>

In the beginning, Lillian Leyb’s story seems indiscernible from that of thousands of immigrant Jews of the early 20th century: having lost her entire family and most of her community in the bloody Russian pogroms, she makes her way to New York City to start over. Gutsy and bold despite her tragic past, she begins to carve a new life for herself; she almost begins to forget the old one.

Lillian’s pursuit of the American dream is truncated when news from the old country convinces her that she must renounce the strange but wonderful comforts of New York and set out on an epic journey to Siberia. Unlike most of her fellow immigrants, Lillian is determined to go back.

Amy Bloom’s narrative is fast-paced and thoroughly plotted; after a quiet and somewhat understated start, it becomes a compelling page-turner. Although one senses on occasion that some of the rhetorical flair of which Bloom is evidently capable may have been sacrificed in order to contain the story within such a short book, there are moments of astonishing beauty, insight and humour. “Of course it’s funny,” a character says early on, in a declaration that sums up the book perfectly: “It’s true, it’s absolutely tragic . . . but that does not make it any less funny. For people like us . . . that makes it even a little bit funnier.”