Toward the beginning of Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial (Yale University Press, $25), Janet Malcolm writes, “We go through life mishearing and mis-seeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up. Trial lawyers push this human tendency to a higher level. They are playing for higher stakes than we are playing for when we tinker with actuality in order to transform the tale told by an idiot into an orderly, selfserving narrative.” The tragic costs of an all-encompassing desire for a coherency comprise the core of this gripping and relentless courtroom drama.
Mazoltuv Borukhova is the beleaguered protagonist. She is a beautiful young doctor and a member of the Bukharan Jewish community in Queens, famed — even notorious — for its religiosity and insularity. Accused of hiring a hit man to assassinate her estranged husband, she, and her entire community, are drawn into a murder trial, with allegations of domestic violence, sexual impropriety, child abuse, and a heart-wrenching custody battle. On the national stage, Borukhova’s tortuous drama spirals out of control.
As much as this is the story of a family’s violent disintegration, it is even more the story of the American justice system — such as it is. What we see most clearly through Borukhova’s story is that, regardless of her guilt or innocence, the idea of a neutral courtroom is a fantasy, an impartial jury an absurdity. And for a woman in a patriarchal and isolated community, turning to the system for protection does not mean that your truth will emerge victorious, nor that the price will be bearable Laws and systems ostensibly designed to protect children and battered spouses are only useful when we know which spouse is the batterer and which the victim, or who the abusive parent. As Malcolm writes, Borukhova “had asked the state for help and the state had given it, but, in exchange for its protection, had exacted control over a part off her life — her motherhood.” There’s a scene in Crime and Punishment where the tortured Roskolnikov is confronted by his nemesis Svidrigailov, who has overheard Raskolnikov’s confession and now relishes his incontrovertible and undeserved power. It is a moment of breathtaking injustice — our beloved but flawed hero has no viable way to expose the manipulation.
That same sensation of sanctioned injustice colors Malcolm’s Iphigenia. With a twisting plot line and teeming with innumerable characters, it has the ring of nihilist Russian tragedy, the suffocated urge to reveal a repressed truth that we expect from a Kafka tale. But for the reader, there is no respite, no comforting rationale for disbelief, since this is no fiction.
Sonia Isard is assistant editor at Lilith. She studied Russian and Yiddish history and literature at the Universi- ty of Michigan and the Jewish Theological Seminary.