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New Zealand, Sweden, Warsaw.

The Jewish drama persists

Adam Anker, the narrator of the novel Sonata for Miriam by Linda Olsson (Penguin, $15.00), begins his tale by describing the blank that is the canvas of his life, then slowly filling in the picture plane. The initial strokes limn a day in which Adam, a musician and professor, visits the Holocaust Gallery of a New Zealand museum and discovers an important clue to his past. At virtually the same moment, Miriam — Adam’s college-age daughter — dies in an accident.

To recover from this tragedy — and begin to understand himself — Adam must assemble a self-portrait out of fragments while sharing with the reader what he has sidelined in order to make a life in New Zealand. Buried in the past is a Holocaust drama, concerning Adam’s unreadable and sorrowful mother and the father Adam never knew. Adam travels to his boyhood home in Warsaw, and then to the home of Cecilia, Miriam’s artistmother, who lives on an island off the Swedish coast.

Adam and Cecilia — as well as many of the novel’s secondary characters — construct their lives around absence; they are largely defined by losses that they cannot or will not transcend. This hauntedness gives the book its poetic intensity, but also its sense of melodrama. The lyrical largely wins out, and the novel’s descriptions of place are particularly lovely. Olsson speaks of Warsaw as having “the gentle, filtered light of the Old World” and of the “sad, surreal pallor” of a rainy day in Sweden. Adam’s existential passion — his desire for meaning in a life hollowed out by grief — makes for a page-turner, leading Adam to tales of desperation, great love, family drama, art theft, musical genius and more. Adam’s romantic passion, however, often feels overwrought. He recounts parting from Cecilia by saying, “You tore yourself free, turned abruptly, and walked across the room, out into the rain. I sank to my knees and curled up with my hands between my thighs.”

The novel means to fashion itself as a song, a sonata that works mightily not to become a dirge. By the end, though, the novel reads as a landscape, the details of place part of what enchants the reader and ultimately helps Olsson’s characters begin to heal.

Debra Spark’s third novel — Good for the Jews — will be published in fall of 2009.