Childhood traumas cast a long shadow in Laundry by Suzane Adam, translated from the Hebrew by Becka Mara McKay (Autumn Hill Books, $16.95). The protagonists of the novel, Ephraim and his wife Ildiko, also called by her Hebrew name, Chavatzelet, are a young couple building lives in Israel in the shadow of their families’ experiences in Transylvania — and in Ildiko’s case, her own experience as a young child hiding there after the Holocaust. As the book opens, their lives have mysteriously fallen apart — Ildiko is nearly catatonic in the wake of a recent, unnamed tragedy, and Ephraim and Ildiko’s mother and sister are in a whirlwind of worry. Ephraim cocoons himself in the house with his traumatized wife, who eventually reveals her haunting story.
Frantic first-person narration mimics the characters’ emotional states. Ildiko’s voice is slower than Ephraim’s, occasionally interrupted by his pleas that she speed up the story so he can begin to make sense of it all. Her insistence that she can only tell each thing as it happened, in the voice of her five-year-old, then six-yearold, then seven-year-old self, through to adulthood, is frustrating to Ephraim as it is to the reader, who still does not know what has triggered this crisis.
In between the pieces of Ildiko’s story, Ephraim reveals some of his own past: his angry, dissatisfied Holocaust survivor mother, his solace in his work as a gardener and his falling in love with Ildiko. He is also trying to calom Ildiko’s mother and sister while sharing with them Ildiko’s unfolding story about the sustained psychological abuse she suffered in Transylvania at the hands of a local teenage girl, Yutzi, who worked in the local slaughterhouse and was adored by the rest of the family. Yutzi terrorized the young Ildiko, threatening that if the girl told her parents about the treatment, she would be disemboweled like the cows.
The author’s strategy of not revealing what has precipitated the crisis until nearly the end of the book eventually obscures the suspense rather than heightening it. Nonetheless, the story exposes hard truths about family secrets and psychological trauma, and offers a rare glimpse of life in post-war Transylvania.
Rahel Lerner is an editor, writer, and teacher in Baltimore.