What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Nathan Englander
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 224pp, £12.99

The title story in Nathan Englander's new collection is a conversation. Two couples, over 30 pages, gradually get to know each other. Couple one is secular, Jewish, liberal, living in a plush house in Florida (the husband narrates, wryly); couple two are visiting, over from Jerusalem. They are Hasidic Jews, or "ultra-Orthodox, which to me sounds like a repackaged detergent", quips the Florida husband, "Orthodox Ultra®".

There are the awkward adjustments (couple two, once called Lauren and Mark, have re-named themselves Shoshana and Yerucham) and tentative discussion of Israeli politics. Eventually, the quartet get drunk on vodka and high on weed, and everyone starts to rub along a lot better. They tell stories about Holocaust survivors, crack jokes, discuss their children and their long-distant youth.

It is a freewheeling kind of story, following the disparate threads of a meandering, inebriated conversation, pepped by drugs stolen from the stash of couple one's teenage son, until they realise they are ravenous and cram into the larder and play the Anne Frank game: who would you trust to hide you if there was a second Holocaust?

It's a belly-punch ending, after a circuitous, humorous preamble. Englander leads the reader by the hand through the foursome's chatter, an expert at the colloquial aside, the slight jarring of adult conversation in which people don't quite say what they mean. Having made us all comfortable, he then pushes both his characters and readers off the ledge, almost without warning. Englander is too good a writer to have a "schtick" but if he did, this would be it: setting up a scene, coddling the reader with whimsical anecdote and a light, breezy tone, and then coolly breaking it all apart. There is never anything as clumsy as a twist in Englander's stories - just a gradual, deft dismantling of what you thought you knew, or could rely on.

If all Englander's stories followed such a pattern, his collection would be one-note instead of the triumph that it is. He switches voice with uncanny agility, swerving from the casual, easy first-person of "Anne Frank" to "Sister Hills", a dark, historical fable of Israeli settler history told through the lives of two women. The tonal contrast is not mere ventriloquism: Englander has the confidence and versatility to embody multiple voices, to create a complete and complex world within a story, each one distinct from the last.

Some of the tales are evidently close to home for Englander - such as those set in the Byzantine social hierarchies of east-coast Jewish holiday camps for the elderly or Long Island suburban backstreets. It's in these settings that Englander seems at his most relaxed and where he unleashes his full comic power. In the masterpiece of the collection, "How We Avenged the Blums", he depicts a group of teenage boys growing up in a perennially dull Long Island, desperate for adventure but ill-equipped to embark on one: "Our parents were born and raised in Brooklyn. In Greenheath, they built us a Jewish Shangri-La, providing us with everything but the one crucial thing Brooklyn had offered. It wasn't stickball or kick-the-can - acceptable losses, though nostalgia ran high. No, it was a quality that we were missing, a toughness. As a group of boys 13 and 14, we grew healthy, we grew polite, but our parents thought us soft."

This group of loveable softies, so lacking in courage or conviction, eventually musters the collective strength to take on the local anti-Semite bully (with the help of the marvellously named Ace Cohen, "the biggest Jew in town"), though they're never quite cut out for the job, however hard they try to toughen up.

Englander grew up in Long Island, too, in the Orthodox community of West Hempstead, and attended a Hebrew academy for high school. He knows this terrain so well that his stories are not so much about Jewishness as emanating from it, immersed in every aspect of its culture, faith and history. (Later this month, he will publish his translation of the Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer.) But though Judaism often creates the community for his stories, his concern is not the intricacies of religion but the foibles and follies of people, the messy reality of lives. These are not tales driven by ideology, or abstraction, but by human muddle and desire.

Muddled reality is turned into an art form in "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side", a story of 63 short, numbered paragraphs. In this fragmented, drip-fed form, we learn of the myths and accidental deaths that wound a family over the years. Woven within these revelations is the story of the narrator's disintegrating relationship with a Bosnian girl, Bean. It is an artful, delicate creation: the threading of two narratives and gaping paragraph breaks expose the mysterious, unexplained holes in our family histories and in ourselves. In paragraph 52, the narrator declares his enduring love for Bean: "And I place this in the middle of a short story in the midst of our modern YouTube, iTunes, plugged-in lives . . . No one's looking, no one's listening. There can't be any place better to hide in plain sight."

Perhaps this paragraph reveals Englander's old-fashioned affection for the hermetic privacy of a short story. Perhaps it is simply what it claims to be - a comment on fiction's noisier, digital competitors. Either way, it is an indication of the intimacy of these stories and the ­tenderness with which they explore human vulnerability.