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Moscow, Vietnam, New Jersey

Never mind that Dara Horn, author of The World to Come (Norton, $24.95), is a Harvard doctoral candidate pursuing comparative literature studies in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Above all else, Horn is a consummate story teller whose imagination and narrative skill succeed in bringing to vivid life the worlds of 1980s suburban New Jersey, present-day New York, and Soviet Russia of the 1920s and 30s. Linked by the theft of a Marc Chagall painting, which the protagonist, Benjamin Ziskind, believes to be his family’s rightful possession, Horn weaves the Ziskind saga into the lives of Chagall and the Yiddish writer known as “Der Nister” (The Hidden One) to conjure a universe of extraordinary connections.

Nearly all the characters in this seductively compelling novel are lost souls who are damaged in some way. Ben, a divorced writer for a television quiz show, is a former child prodigy who, as an adolescent, had to wear a brace to correct his spine. Unsure of himself and nearly paralyzed by inertia, Ben worries that he is “still waiting for a future that might never arrive.” He and his twin sister Sara are recently orphaned as the novel opens, as are many of the novel’s characters. Erica Frank, the assistant curator at the museum where the Chagall is stolen who piques Ben’s emotional and romantic interest, has also lost her mother. And Boris Kulbak, who is the reason the Ziskinds owned the painting in the first place, was once Chagall’s student in a Soviet orphanage for the children of those who perished in Stalin’s pogroms.

Dara Horn, whose previous novel, In the Image, received much critical praise, has written an astonishingly rich second novel, one that encompasses the Jewish world of the Old Country as well as the New, with an imaginative detour to Paradise. She brings her literary skill to bear on an almost unbearably mimetic description of an ambush in Vietnam, where Sara and Ben’s father, Daniel, loses his leg when he falls into a Vietcong “tiger trap.” A similar sensibility allows Horn to convey that same sense of immediacy and detail in settings such as a Moscow apartment building during the Cold War, where neighbors and friends betray one another; the suffocating landscape of 1950s suburbia; or even the surprisingly familiar environment that is the world to come.

Part mystery and part meditation on history, theology, philosophy and folklore, this novel is a lyrical and haunting exploration of family, love, and loss. “The loved already-weres and the not-yets of our world, the mortals and the mortals, are bound together somewhere just past where we can see, in a knot of eternal life.”

Is the “world to come” indeed the stuff of legend, the realm where the righteous are rewarded and the not-yet-born experience a taste for the paradise that will drive their mortal existence? Or is it, as Ben’s deceased mother Rosalie suggests—with that significant comma punctuating the phrase, “the world, to come”? Perhaps Ben is right when he considers that “the world to come that his parents had always talked about was not an afterlife at all, but simply this world to come-the future world, your own future, that you were creating for yourself with every choice you made in it.”

Merri Rosenberg’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Jewish Week and other national publications.