There is no doubt in my mind that Emily Barton’s latest novel, The Book of Esther, is going to be among this year’s most buzz-worthy, in the Jewish book world, and beyond. Barton’s creation of an alternative WWII history, in which Esther, the daughter of a high-ranking official in the fictitious Jewish independent nation called Khazaria, is determined to change her fate and that of all Jews being threatened by the ominously powerful Germania, is captivating. Fans of magic realism, alternative histories, and those particularly interested in kabbalah will quickly find themselves deeply immersed in Esther’s story.
Barton’s painstaking attention to detail and lyrical prose demand the reader’s undivided attention and imagination. This is a book to savor, where the setting and descriptions of the real and imagined Jewish rituals provide rich texture to a slowly moving plot. At times, the combination of English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and a local Khazarian dialect is almost too much to digest. Even as transformation emerged as one of the book’s main themes, I had a hard time connecting with the characters, or completely understanding who they were and who they wanted to become. To a certain extent, I think Barton intentionally left this mystery unsolved, both for the reader and the characters. It is a book about possibilities, which requires some shadow to remain between what is and what might be.
Destined to be a popular book club pick, The Book of Esther has something for everyone – a coming-of-age story for a strong female heroine, the retelling of what initially seems to be the familiar history of the Holocaust, ingenious technology, an army of golems, a love story, even a sibling rivalry. Readers with the patience to understand the world that Barton creates will be rewarded by her gorgeous writing. Others will want to throw the book against the wall in frustration, and give up waiting for the action to pick up the pace. Which of these groups will you call your own?
I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing.com and NetGalley. The opinions stated above belong to me alone.