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What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

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nathan englanderRebekah Heaney discusses Nathan Englander’s award winning collection of short stories.

What do we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank? The tendency to frame Anne Frank’s legacy (and those like her) in a history of abstract concepts of humanity at its most good and most evil is a tendency to reduce it to a certain cultural currency. Nathan Englander shies away from this in his collection, winner of the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story award, to instead explore the larger questions resting in the cracks of Judeo-American culture.

I say the cracks, because the turns that his eight stories take aren’t always the obvious ones when we talk about the violence, the bigotry, the memory and tradition that pepper the psyche of Englander’s Jewish community. Perhaps this is why What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank remains so successful. Rather than disassociating himself from obvious markers Englander instead writes transcendently, weaving universal doubt and pain in with a heavily weighted sense of heritage. ‘Sister Hills’ and ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’ explore the inheritance of aggression and desire for revenge across generations whilst ‘How We Avenged the Blums’ and ‘Camp Sundown’ sees sharply comedic portraits collide with notes of tragedy and greater history.

The eponymous opening story is extremely funny, as Englander artfully portrays vivid familial relationships and suburban anxiety without losing a bitingly witty use of dialogue. His characters echo conversations we all feel as if we’ve had ourselves, in one form or another, crowded round friends’ kitchens with drinks in hand. The simultaneous discussion of personal experience and ultimate truths make this knowing commentary both familiar and thought-provoking.

I would recommend the collection immediately to fans of Jonathan Safran Foer, and for those less enamoured with his oeuvre there is nevertheless something here for almost everyone. From the perspective of a non-Jewish reader, for example, ‘Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side’ and ‘The Reader’ were particularly touching in their representation of our relationships with family and art. Englander remains striking in the unexpectedly dark undertones of his funnier stories but perhaps more interestingly the sustained sense of inherent humanity and beauty that exists in the most brutal of narratives is what sets this collection apart.

Rebekah Heaney

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