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In Her Mother’s Absence

The Border of Truth, an ambitious new novel by Victoria Redel, is an intricately woven tale of truth and deception and the ever-shifting border between them.

The book tells the story of Sara Leader and her father, Richard (once known as Itzak). Sara’s narrative is set in Manhattan in 2003, while her father’s account is told via letters he wrote while awaiting entry to the United States in 1940. Through this piquant correspondence — and with the help of Redel’s rich prose — the reader becomes privy to the boy’s previous life and the fascinating and tragic details of his family’s attempts to flee a Europe in turmoil, on the cusp of the Second World War. Sara has never been party to the particulars of her father’s history; he guarded his secrets scrupulously over many years. But as the book gains momentum, a series of events set off by a chance encounter launches Sara’s search for her father’s past and, in turn, her own present and future.

Father and daughter have been protecting each other and themselves from the truth for decades; disclosure, they both believe, is tantamount to pain, which neither can bear to inflict on the other. Tellingly, when Sara, who is moving through the process of adopting a child, thinks of being a parent, “she mostly imagines herself as a protective father,” the only type of parent figure she knows.

The book’s power lies in the father’s tale and the underlying story of Sara’s relationship with her mother, who died when the girl was 11. Much of Sara’s personality is clearly formed (or unformed) by the absence of a mother. Repeatedly, “it’s her mother’s insistent bravery and her absolute honesty during the dying that keeps rising up in Sara, waiting to be found.” Amid all the secrets, her mother’s voice is genuine and commanding.

Numerous strands weave together in this broad tapestry of a novel, and occasionally some begin to unravel while others distract. We want to know more about Sara’s love life, her desire to adopt, and the many years between Itzak’s arrival in the U.S. and the present.

The Border of Truth is not traditional “Holocaust lit”; the events surrounding the war are used as catalyst and background more than as the focal point. But the ramifications of survival, which is a germinal Holocaust theme, resonate throughout this novel, making it a classic yet original story of refuge, loss, guilt and redemption.

A.Z. Cohen is a writer who lives in Israel