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Swept Along, And Away

From courtesan to Alaskan pioneer

Amy Bloom’s newest novel, Away (Random House, $23.95), seems to want grandiose, Dr. Zhivago-like background music. The story’s heroine, Lillian Leyb, sees her parents and husband slaughtered by Cossacks. She sends her two-year-old daughter, Sophie, to hide in the yard, and then cannot find her. Lillian flees Russia and its horrors for the Goldena Medina, America in the early twentieth century. In New York, lost in the language and lost in love, she enters into a pair of twisted relationships with a star actor in the Yiddish theater and with his father, a theatrical impresario. These situations alone might have been enough to fuel a novel, but then cousin Raisele comes from Russia with the news that Sophie is alive and has been taken to Siberia by a couple from the village.

This news furnishes Lillian with hope and a reason to live: she must find her daughter. With no money, she decides to hide in train closets, ending up the companion of an African-American prostitute in Seattle and becoming the accomplice to a murder. She is institutionalized in a work center for women where she enters the world of prison favors. And, finally, Lillian arrives in Alaska, where she plans to launch her desperate walk to Siberia. Of course, she faces death and falls in love along the way, all while fueled by the passionate, primordial desire to find her daughter.

The gargantuan plot at times borders on the absurd, but never teeters and falls off the edge, thanks to Bloom’s grip on language. If anything, the sheer scale of adventure affords Bloom free rein to gallop out her writing in pronouncements like “Lillian believes in luck and hunger (and greed, which is really just the rich man’s hunger — she doesn’t even mind anymore; that people are ruled by their wants seems a reliable truth).” Bloom twirls her skills adroitly, even flaunting them on occasion in humorous asides, but with such a palpable love for Lillian that all satirical indulgences are dwarfed by the huge shadow (never entirely perceived by the reader) of a mother’s love for her child.

Implicitly, Bloom acknowledges that the sheer ridiculousness of the plot is, on a larger scale, simply a manifestation of the sheer ridiculousness of life. In the present, of course, the book’s central drama could be easily resolved by a series of Google searches and phone calls, but in the past, when someone went away, they truly went Away, and the question of to what extent a person can possibly remain herself after she has been elsewhere remains purposefully unanswered.

Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.